46 new universities needed to ‘level-up’ England, Blair estimates

The new universities “should have a particular focus on applied as well as technical skills and core competencies for the 21st century”, the report recommends

A policy brief published by the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change (8 June) suggests that England needs as many as 46 new universities to level up deprived, middle-sized towns outside of economically vibrant conurbations.

The towns of Hartlepool, Doncaster, Batley and Blackpool are just the sorts of localities that could benefit from a new university, the report suggested, noting that, at present, 46 towns in England with populaces over 80,000 have no university.

Swindon, Grimsby, Chesterfield, Burton, Blackburn and Wakefield would make such a speculative list, boasting FE colleges with HE provision but no institutions with degree-awarding powers.

The new universities “should have a particular focus on applied as well as technical skills and core competencies for the 21st century”, the report recommends.

ARU Peterborough is an example of, perhaps, the sort of model endorsed by the report – new HE campus opening in an HE ‘cold spot’ under the auspices of an experienced university partner.

Alongside these new universities, the report suggests that those colleges in England offering higher technical education be “promoted” to the status of polytechnics, a title that disappeared from the education landscape in 1992, gaining awarding powers for degree apprenticeships in the process. Along with transformation to the Apprenticeship Levy, which the report says has skewed provision towards the south and public sector vocations, the government could “raise the status, as well as the quality of vocational education”.

Read more: Degree apprenticeships: reform them for the sake of social mobility, says Sutton Trust

The plans are part of what the former prime minister Tony Blair and Labour peer Andrew Adonis labelled a 2030 Education Plan.

Since becoming a university in 2005, Falmouth has tripled its student numbers to over 6,000, supporting over 2,000 jobs in Cornwall
– Tony Blair and Andrew Adonis, report co-authors

Despite their enthusiastic support for the development of FE, the co-authors suggested, “it would be wrong, as many now suggest, to soft-peddle [sic] – let alone seek to reverse – the expansion of higher education”.

Defending the introduction of tuition fees in 2004, Blair said fee reform “made possible an expansion of university places” that still benefits students today. The focus of ministers must now turn to the number of places on courses that “students perceive to be valuable”, the report advised, “including degree level apprenticeships”. The authors leave the definition of course value vague, but the suggestion these institutions prioritise “applied as well as technical skills and core competencies” hints that these universities should have an unabashedly vocational bent.

Arguing the case for HE participation, the New Labour architects said: “Just a 1.42% increase in university-educated graduates correlating to an extra $1,747 [sic] in GDP per capita […] a 10% increase in the number of universities in a region is associated with 0.4% higher GDP per person.”

Citing what they referred to as the ‘Falmouth model’, Blair and Adonis suggested that such an institution should act as a role model.

Said the co-authors: “Since becoming a university in 2005, Falmouth has tripled its student numbers to over 6,000, supporting over 2,000 jobs in Cornwall. It is now estimated to add £100m p.a. in Gross Added Value to the local economy and is now one of Cornwall’s flagship institutions with an international reputation. It boasts a 96% employment rate and four times the number of self-employed graduates compared to UK average – graduates who can remain in Cornwall after finishing their studies.”

These 46 new universities could contribute towards town centre regeneration, job creation, improving local schools, NHS and government services. The report pointed to a poll by the Civic University Network that suggests 59% of respondents nationally want universities to play a more active local role as evidence for the public demand for the input of universities.

Earlier this year, Prof Alec Cameron and Prof David Phoenix, vice-chancellors of Aston University and London South Bank University, respectively, launched a report calling for more state investment in what they termed ‘Universities of Technology’. These institutions should be distinguishable by focusing on vocational, technical and skills-based higher technical courses and have strong knowledge transfer partnerships and civic identity, the vice-chancellors suggest.

Prof Cameron said that the UK had a rich history of technical institutions, but their identity had lessened when polytechnics became universities in the early 1990s. They had since “evolved in an undifferentiated and amorphous model”, he said, driven by government policies and league tables that privilege “Oxbridge universities”.

Read more: University civic engagement: UPP Foundation identifies public priorities

Related news: Improving access to degree apprenticeships for disadvantaged students a priority, skills minister says

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