As the dust settles on the government’s 297-page levelling up white paper, the higher education sector has responded with calls for clarity, especially around the role universities can play in the strategy.
The white paper, published on 2 February, was followed by multiple media appearances from Michael Gove, the minister charged with manifesting this election-winning pledge. If the two-and-a-half-year premiership of Boris Johnson so far was a song, “levelling up” has been the catchy, radio-friendly hook.
To this slogan, hummed frequently by ministers across Whitehall in contexts as diverse as their departments, Mr Gove has attempted to add the nuts and bolts of policy.
Labour’s shadow levelling up secretary, Lisa Nandy, joked that the resulting white paper amounted to little more than “a history lesson”, incredulously asking her opposite number in the House of Commons: “Is this it?” Viewers at home might not have understood Ms Nandy’s jibe. To elaborate: a history of geographical disparities in the UK and the world required just over a half (158 pages) of the inch-thick white paper.
Commentators in higher education have viewed the levelling up agenda and the government’s priorities in research and development as areas where the sector could burnish its reputation with ministers who have, at times, expressed some HE scepticism.
After the Conservative party 2019 general election triumph, Universities UK chief executive Alastair Jarvis wrote an op-ed expressing “hope the new government will recognise the huge benefit of working positively with universities”. He accepted elements of the party’s manifesto raised “legitimate challenge on issues of real public concern that universities need to tackle head-on”, but vowed the sector would help the government “fulfil its ambitious plans”.
But following the paper, comments from the sector suggest it is unsure of what new opportunities now lie before it. The familiar refrain appears to be: it sets a good direction, but there’s not enough detail yet to know if we’ll get there.
What’s the reaction?
Firstly, what’s changed? The answer is not a lot – yet. But the sector has welcomed the aims and ambition of the white paper.
Prof Steve West, the president of Universities UK, offered a carefully coded endorsement of the white paper. “The impact of universities on people and places can be truly transformational,” he said. “Universities are crucial to levelling up, by bringing together student populations, research partners, local businesses and employers to create vibrant communities, jobs and opportunity across the UK.”
But, he added, it was important “government creates the right conditions for universities to fully support business growth and skills development”.
On research and development, the government states: “By 2030, domestic public investment in R&D outside the greater south-east will increase by at least 40%, and over the spending review period by at least one third. This additional government funding will seek to leverage at least twice as much private sector investment over the long term to stimulate innovation and productivity growth.”
This echoes announcements in the spending review last year, which also delayed the long-heralded target R&D target – for investment to equal 2.4% of gross domestic product (GDP) – to 2027. The white paper makes no mention of the Advanced Research and Invention Agency, the bill for which faces its final legislative hurdle soon.
Shifting research funding outside of the Golden Triangle may be the “right conditions” Prof West is referring to. But the Campaign for Science and Engineering (CaSE) was sceptical of the impact of this pledge. Its initial analysis shows that the target to increase by one-third R&D investment outside of the Greater South-East by 2024/25 “won’t alter the current balance of R&D investment”. It it will, however, “ensure that new money is invested across the UK”. CaSE welcomed the plan but called for “the details” of this geographic redistribution and clarity on “what policy levers” local leaders will have to direct innovation funding.
CaSE said the three-year £2.6bn Shared Prosperity Fund, which will replace EU structural funding, was vital and must retain R&D and innovation infrastructure “as a core purpose”. Further information on the scheme is due in late spring. The Strength in Places fund, which has invested £200m in 12 projects to date, gets a mention in the report but no new funds.
Universities Wales said: “Welsh universities need clarity on the replacement of EU structural funds”. It added: “The UK Government reaffirmed in October’s spending review their commitment to match the receipts of structural funds in Wales. It is difficult to identify in the white paper how this funding will be provided.”
In Greater Manchester, the West Midlands and Glasgow City, three Innovation Accelerators will receive £100m over two years to develop “new clusters”, described as the “Fourth Industrial Revolution Foundries”.
The National Centre for Universities and Business welcomed the news of the Innovation Accelerators. But its chief executive Dr Joe Marshall said: “The devil will, however, be in the detail especially around their selection, the expected impact and benefit but also where future ones will be located.”
Universities Wales was less pleased with the announcement of the three Innovation Accelerators, expressing it is “keen to understand the process through which the innovation acceleration pilot areas were identified”. That Wales did not become home to an Innovation Accelerator was “disappointing”, Universities Wales said, urging ministers in Westminster to reconsider the decision.
The Russell Group said it hoped that an expansion of Innovation Accelerators would follow the pilot programme. “Ultimately, research excellence and levelling up go hand in hand. The UK’s leading innovation economies deliver jobs and growth far beyond their regions, while advances driven by research-intensive universities in everything from AI to biomedical science and clean energy technology result in benefits for the whole nation,” said Dr Tim Bradshaw, chief executive of the Russell Group.
The Department of Business, Energy and Industrial (BEIS) Strategy will, the white paper says, “work with the devolved administrations, with local leaders, with industry, academia and institutions across the UK” so manufacturers “benefit from the full range of government policy and programmes, including those set out in the Innovation Strategy and Net Zero Strategy”. The new Institutes of Technology, which can look to apply for a Royal Charter placing them “on a par with the UK’s world-leading historic universities”, will “react quickly to the evolving technical skills needs of an area”, Mr Gove’s report says. How these IoTs are to develop, quality-assure and approve courses “quickly”, the report declines to say.
On skills, there is no mention of increasing HE participation, with more attention on increasing the numbers pursuing level 3, 4, 5 qualifications in the FE sector – numbers that the new lifelong learning entitlement and capital investments are soon to change. “By 2030,” the white paper says, “the number of people successfully completing high-quality skills training will have significantly increased in every area of the UK. In England, this will lead to 200,000 more people successfully completing high-quality skills training annually, driven by 80,000 more people completing courses in the lowest-skilled areas.” Given that figures from the Department for Education show that, since 2011/12, the number of learners in post-19 FE halved to around a million, this ambition to increase trainee numbers follows a significant lull.
There is little detail on how most of them will be met, and less detail on available funding
– Paul Johnson, Institute for Fiscal Studies
University Alliance called the professional and technical education provided by its 14 members “key to meeting the current and future skills and innovation needs of industry”.
Vanessa Wilson, chief executive of the University Alliance, said the organisation’s members have “long called for a more evidence-based approach to identifying skills gaps and shaping education policy to meet them”. She said they were “excited by the possibilities of the new Future Skills Unit and our universities, as leading skills providers in their regions, should be core partners in the development of Local Skills Improvement Plans”.
Dr Diana Beech, chief executive of London Higher, said the report omitted “the glaring inequalities” in the capital. She said the organisation wants the government to give London universities “equal consideration for strategic funding schemes, such as the Levelling Up Fund, the UK Shared Prosperity Fund, the Strength in Places Fund and other place-based funding sources”.
Directing funding outside of the Greater South East area is “akin to shutting the door on the capital and risk overlooking London’s world-leading research base which benefits the entire country”, Dr Beech continued.
Prof Graeme Atherton, head of the Centre for Inequality and Levelling Up at the University of West London, expressed concern at the plans for selective, “elite” sixth forms in the newly-designated 55 Education Investment Areas. Talking to University Business, Prof Atherton feared the new institutions would become “quasi-Grammar schools” that may only support already “well-supported, able” students. He also questioned whether these institutions might lead to universities reducing interaction with existing colleges.
The Institute for Fiscal Studies produced its assessment of the white paper, with its director, Paul Johnson, saying: “That lack of quick fixes, the long term perspective, and clarity about objectives are all very welcome, as is the recognition that real progress will require a change in governance in Whitehall and beyond.”
He continued: “The targets are largely in the right areas, but many look extremely ambitious – that is to say highly unlikely to be met, even with the best policies and much resource. There is little detail on how most of them will be met, and less detail on available funding. There is something for everyone, and hence little sense of prioritisation: ambition and resource will be spread very thin.
“Meeting the core ambition of simultaneously improving education and skill levels and availability of high paying jobs in poorer regions will prove extremely challenging. Without that, levelling up will not happen. It will require the level of focus that has gone into this white paper being developed and maintained over decades.”
Perhaps the most welcoming aspect of this agenda is the direction it sets, offering both main political parties in the UK a plan to debate, discuss and attempt to deliver. It leaves space for the sector to champion solutions for the questions Mr Gove’s paper sets out. It nails down the question: now all that’s needed is the answer.