The government’s proposal to build a new research-intensive institution in the north of England has been met with a cool response from several senior higher education leaders.
Taking inspiration from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in the United States, northern powerhouse minister Jake Berry suggested shortly after the 2019 general election that the government could look to create a similar institution in the north of England in a bid to rebalance the UK’s research and development (R&D) sector.
But senior leaders in the sector have critiqued the idea, with one vice-chancellor describing the plan as “unnecessary”.
Although supportive of greater funding for northern universities, Sir David Bell, vice-chancellor of the University of Sunderland, said a brand-new institution “would be an unnecessary diversion of time, effort and money”.
Dr Annette Bramley, director of the N8 Research Partnership which represents eight research-intensive universities in the north of England, welcomed the government’s “level of ambition”, but said there were other methods that would avoid “incredible cost”.
Speaking to University Business, Sir David said: “From my experience in Whitehall, recently elected governments will often seek new ideas, particularly those that might garner a headline.”
While commending the Tories’ ambition to spread innovation across the country, Sir David called on the government to ditch the plan and instead “trust, and fund, the universities of the north”.
“Releasing funding and allowing northern universities and their partners to develop ideas here, without micro-management from London, will be an early test of the new government’s commitment to the north of England”, he said.
There are regional imbalances in the distribution of research funding. In 2017, the south-east of England and London accounted for 52% of total UK R&D expenditure, according to the Office for National Statistics. Furthermore, the south-east of England received a fifth of all UK R&D investment (a combination of private, business, HE and government spending), more than any other region in the UK. In comparison, Yorkshire and the Humber received just 5%.
Sir David added: “I would urge the government to promote a ‘Northern Challenge’, backed with substantial sums of money, to encourage further collaboration between universities to tackle the big issues that we face around transport, energy, new manufacturing and productivity and skills.
“Government and businesses are important partners too, but if there is a real commitment to devolution and empowerment, decisions about how money should be spent should be made in the north. That, though, will be easier said than done as centralising instincts run deep in Westminster and Whitehall, irrespective of which political party is in power.”
Speaking at the end of last year to the Today Programme on BBC Radio 4, Chris Day, vice-chancellor of Newcastle University, said: “Working closely with industry is the way forward rather than starting from scratch with a new institution that would take years to produce results.”
In another exclusive interview, Dr Bramley said: “The N8 welcomes the scale of ambition, but we think there are other ways to deliver those outcomes which do not necessitate building a whole new institution.
“It is an incredible cost for buildings and governance when there are already institutions in the region that are doing great research and training. There are more effective ways of leveraging the expertise, skills and networks, rather than popping up a new institution.
“Those strengths already exist in the ‘northern powerhouse’ and it would be a better use of public funds to invest in those projects so we can hit the ground running.”
The N8 Research Partnership is an organisation funded by its member, which comprise the universities of Durham, Lancaster, Leeds, Liverpool, Manchester, Newcastle, Sheffield and York.
Dr Bramley says its members, and the other universities in the north, represent the best opportunity for investment.
In a rebuke to the idea for a new institution, Dr Bramley said: “It would very easy for cities and parts of the north to argue among themselves over which one should benefit from an ‘MIT of the north’ investment.
“If we want to bring the whole region up and deal with inequalities, we can’t pit parts of the north against each other. We should invest in excellence, but excellence can be found in lots of different places, in different forms, and it’s really important that we recognise that.”
Dr Bramley suggested the government instead build innovation districts across the region to make it easier for universities to collaborate and share their research.
She added that the region “needs people in businesses who can absorb innovation and better transport and broadband, so people can move freely throughout the north, not just the big cities, but between all areas of the region”.
For example, Sheffield University’s Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre (AMRC) has been a powerhouse for investment in the region and helped Sheffield generate £124m in engineering research income and investment in 2018, the most of any university in the UK.
Last year, Sheffield University opened AMRC Cymru in North Wales, a £20m research and development centre close to the Airbus wing-manufacturing plant in Broughton. The Welsh government predicts the new facility could increase GVA to the Welsh economy by as much as £4 billion over the next 20 years.
Pointing to the clusters of excellence around Cambridge and Oxford, and the number of businesses located near London, Dr Bramley suggested it more important government “use its resources to make the region attractive to firms and investment and create the conditions to build a really good skills base.”