Prof Susan Lea: ‘Growth does not necessarily reduce poverty’

The vice-chancellor of the University of Hull warns that levelling-up will only work if institutions ensure that economic growth is inclusive

Prof Susan Lea is approaching the end of her five-year tenure as vice-chancellor of the University of Hull. There is, as the saying goes, never a good time to go: with looming higher education reform, the future of Horizon, inflation and unresolved industrial disputes with the University and College Union, it is a tricky time to hand over to a successor.

But before she leaves, Prof Lea wants to discuss “levelling up”. The expression is somewhat of a government catchphrase, a guiding star for ministers plotting a post-Brexit path. Recent research by the Resolution Foundation has warned that government plans to “level up” cities around the UK will cost billions more than thought: the required sums go “far beyond anything currently being contemplated”, it added. In May, the think tank Centre for Cities warned ministers that, 100 days on from the February publication of the levelling-up white paper, there was precious little discernable action.

When levelling up first appeared on the policy lexicon, the higher education sector viewed it as a programme it could align with closely. But in that levelling-up white paper, the government made infrequent and tangential references to universities. The sector called for clarity. Speaking to the BBC at the time, levelling-up secretary Michael Gove said the strategy was not a harbinger of new funding but a way to ensure spending effectively addressed local priorities. Mr Gove says he supports the creation of new universities in northern towns like Doncaster, Wigan, and Grimsby in the “medium-term“. But even this unfunded aspiration leaves unanswered the question of where universities fit in the solution?

Meanwhile, many vice-chancellors off the record have told UB they fear the government’s focus on universities in England remains negative and critical. So, how does Prof Lea feel? “I think, universally, there’s been disappointment that universities haven’t been seen explicitly as playing a more central role in levelling up,” she concedes, adding that the way forward now appears “challenging”. But not to seem too downbeat, she says universities “have always played a strong role, and it’s down to us to continue to demonstrate our value”.

“And,” Susan jumps in, striking a cheery tone, “Opportunity Humber was announced in the white paper”. This private sector-led cross-Humber partnership, which includes the university, fills the space left when the Humber Local Enterprise Partnership (LEP) folder last year when some constituent local council members withdrew. The new group announced by Mr Gove’s white paper provides the university with a chance, as Susan puts it, to “leverage as much private sector investment as possible, investments we need to see the growth and productivity that we need in our local area”.

We need local authorities and local government, private and public sector, voluntary and community sector, to share an aspiration and vision

Although the government’s commitment to UK Research and Innovation appears undampened, with its three-year spending commitments, the current economic context is bound to change the government’s spending priorities. Launching the Research Excellence Framework 2021 in spring 2022, Research England chief David Sweeney warned that ministers would not go “as far or as fast” as universities might like as he encouraged them to derive as much private sector investment as possible.

“We’re very aware that local authority funding has been eroded over the years,” Susan says, “and there isn’t new money sitting there. We must think of different ways, leave behind tribes and territories, and really focus on those partnerships that we know how to do well.”

With funding unlikely to prove plentiful, for Opportunity Humber, says Susan, “it is key that we speak with a single voice, that we have a clear strategic vision, that we know what our priorities are”. She refers to a programme called Transform, launched in partnership with Yorkshire Cancer Research, that aims to understand why Humber is in the bottom 2% nationally for cancer survival rates. Their research findings on the intersections of inequalities with health outcomes have already been “taken up now by the Royal College of General Practitioners” and show Hull’s “real impact not just here, but across the country”.

“We need local authorities and local government, private and public sector, voluntary and community sector, to share an aspiration and vision for how we’re going to bring about social change. If people talk with different voices or have different priorities, that will dilute the resources,” she concludes.

The vice-chancellor is not drawn on the challenge of aligning these sometimes disparate voices, only that her university “is very fortunate” in other Humber institutions to have shared priorities.

Prof Susan Lea: 'Growth does not necessarily reduce poverty' 2
The University of Hull welcomes the lifelong learning entitlement, but says tweaks are needed to the government’s plans for its implementation.

But levelling up does come with a price tag, Susan concedes. Partnerships matter, but so too does funding. “Previously, research was concentrated into particular areas: that was the deliberate strategy. Now, with levelling up, the notion is that we’re going to spend more of that money outside of the southeast. The big question, though, is how? And on that, there isn’t much detail. We can’t just distribute that evenly around the country; that’s not going to work. So there’s debate about what excellence looks like and how we pinpoint those places where real excellence is sitting that perhaps hitherto has been overlooked?”

So, what funds – specifically – would Susan like to see as a model of this redistribution. Another round of Strength in Place funding “would be extremely helpful”, she says, after the initial allocation was “framed really in a very constructive way”. But on the issue of other funding models, Prof Lea says: “There’s a new lens that needs to be brought to this. I think part of levelling up means engaging with different voices, whether that’s voices in the community or different types of universities. We haven’t quite fathomed that yet, but it’s critical to the success of levelling up.”

Her approach appears closely to mirror that of a former fellow vice-chancellor Prof Mary Stuart, who until recently headed the University of Lincoln. The two universities share many geographic and socio-economic similarities. Not only did Prof Stuart argue universities in parts of the country like Lincoln should gain a larger share of R&D spending through targetted place-based funds, but she also said funds should instigate more collaboration. R&D funding consortia should, from now on, she said, require the involvement of more diverse groups, like local authorities or directly elected mayors, businesses of all sizes and public sector bodies.

The UK government “continues to question the value of universities and desires increasing influence over our activities”, Susan has said. She has reflected that while universities “in the main” are doing their jobs of education, researching and engaging the world in their research, “we must make sure that our own houses are in order”. She reflects in our conversation that it is tempting and “easy to get caught up in our rhetoric” and “fine words” – and that only by reflecting thoroughly on what a university does, who it benefits and to whom it is responsive can the sector remain committed to its purpose.

Prof Susan Lea: 'Growth does not necessarily reduce poverty' 1
The University of Hull recruits half of undergraduates from its local area which shows, Susan says, the significance as an anchor institutions.

Hull’s approach to net-zero by 2027 is one example she offers of how it is holding itself to the very highest standards. The institutions’ scope 1 and 2 carbon dioxide emissions figures halved between 2015/16 and 2019/20; with a reduction on the same scale over the next four years, the university will have reached its goal. There is still the thorny question of tackling scope 3 – but that is a far harder nut to crack for all institutions. She does accept that the hardest stage of net-zero comes towards the end of the road after the easy wins have been banked, but the plan is on track and will demonstrate Hull’s ethos in practice, she maintains.

Quite often, when you look at policy, it seems like a good idea – but unless you speak to a diversity of voices, you don’t necessarily foresee the consequences

The government might question the value of some courses to students and the economy, but there is no doubt in Susan’s mind that Hull University is achieving on both these fronts. Half of Hull students are locals, and 60% come from POLAR quintiles one and two, statistically the most deprived British postcodes. Six in ten Hull students stay in the Humber region after graduation, which rises to nine in 10 for students studying those archetypal public service degrees of health care, social work and education. Hull has a programme called Gateway to Medicine, a foundation-year scheme to help students from care-leaver backgrounds, first-generation students and low-participation areas enter this fiercely competitive profession. Local students have preferential access, and completing students are guaranteed a degree programme place.

The lifelong learning entitlement (LLE) is a crucial development for Hull, perhaps more so than in any other English city. According to the most recent figures compiled by the Centre for Cities, Hull came bottom of a list of the 63 largest UK towns and cities ranked by the percentage of adults with level four qualifications or above. The LLE, says Susan, “fits well with much of what we want to achieve at Hull” and the greatest body of work for the university is now in collaboration with local FE on “pathways for learners to progress through those higher-level skills that we know will be absolutely essential for the industries of the future”.

That idea of engaging with different people follows through with the government’s plans for lifelong learning and post-18 education as the engine of social mobility.

In concert with many other universities and mission groups – including MillionPlus and University Alliance – Hull wants the government to abandon plans for minimum entry requirements for student finance. The government has proposed disallowing students with ‘low’ prior academic achievement from accessing state-backed HE loans, with suggested thresholds of either grade 4s (equivalent to C-grades in ‘old money’) in English and maths GCSE or at least two E-grades at A-level. But that is just an aspect Susan wants to change. Again, the Hull vice-chancellor finds herself referring to the specifics, or precisely the lack thereof. “There has not been as much detail around this either, has there? And again, I think a lot of this comes down to genuine consultation – has government genuinely listened, genuinely understood what the needs of the community are, structuring the LLE in a way that really enables change to happen.”

“Because we often don’t think through the unintended consequences as much as the intended ones. Quite often, when you look at policy, it seems like a good idea – but unless you speak to a diversity of voices, you don’t necessarily foresee the consequences. So I would welcome greater consultation and piloting of how it might work in places like Humber.”

As our time draws to an end, Susan issues a stark warning: “There’s one thing that I wanted to point out, and that is that there is a lot of talk about levelling up and economic growth, with an assumption that growth reduces poverty.” Although she does not draw a connection to what several ministers have said about the rising cost of living, her choice of words echoes the view of some in the Conservative party that the best way to help those struggling is to ‘grow the economy’.

“Growth does not necessarily reduce poverty,” she persists. “There’s a big risk, I think, sitting within the levelling-up agenda where that linear assumption is made. If there’s one thing that’s going to trip us up, it’s that assumption.

“Often I find when, you’re in these discussions, that disconnect is sitting there, and we really have to challenge it. That’s one of the roles universities like Hull should be playing; making that really clear to people at all levels through our evidence and research that there can be a disconnection between growth and poverty.”

“There is so much opportunity sat here in the Humber region,” she says, referring in particular to the growing green energy sector here on the shores of the North Sea. If the Humberside institutions can work out how to share that opportunity with everyone, then Hull – dogged by post-industrial decline – could yet become the levelling-up case study for the textbooks.


You might also like: ‘Levelling up is so relative. It is a classic political faux pas’ – Martin Jones

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