Levelling Up White Paper: Collaboration within higher education?

Christ Church college. Oxford © Arsty

David Marlow, Managing Director of Third Life Economics and a member of the Institute of Economic Development, discusses local, regional, national, global and institutional issues as a result of the Levelling Up White Paper, which could affect universities’ support for economic development

Universities are already integrally involved in economic development, skills and innovation and play prominent roles in all the devolution we see in England and the UK more generally. Wherever I go, where there is a university, I will typically find examples of great, locally relevant, critical collaborative practice. But it is very inconsistent, and it may not be the whole university, and it may also not be the entire place either.

Now, in the context of the Levelling Up White Paper and whether that is going to drive more or better/more vital involvement, there are three different levels that we need to consider.

National/global level

Universities operate in a national, policy, regulatory and funding context and are massively encouraged to achieve global excellence, including in the White Paper. There are some nods to access and participation and some nods to collaboration, such as the Institutes of Technology and further education. Still, the overall narrative in the White Paper often looks like a Russell Group university is globally excellent and pursuing national, policy, regulatory and funding goals.

Local/regional level

It seems to me that local and regional leadership teams struggle to articulate a consistent ask of what are generally multiple universities of varying kinds within their geography. What I would say about the White Paper is that the continued use of fragmented competitive programmes and funding, at least 15, maybe 20, will not help this for universities or local and regional leadership teams. The second aspect is that too many local communities still feel detached from their universities regarding their everyday life experience. In that area, I think that some of the Levelling Up White Paper’s ‘Pride in Place’ programmes might help address this issue.

Institutional level

Too many universities often look like, which is provocative, a confederation of academic communities in ivory towers. The White Paper does not address this directly. Still, I think giving UK research and innovation (UKRI) a new component of place in their mission – if that feeds down to universities – might be a valuable driver of how institutions reframe their tasks and priorities.

Does the Levelling Up White Paper get to the heart of collaboration?

So, whilst I would argue that directly the Levelling Up White Paper does not get to the heart of these issues, at its very best, it could reinforce nationally place-informed policies and enhanced devolution. It could support regionally and locally strong and empowered leadership teams and anchor institution collaboration. Institutionally it might encourage universities to refresh their authentic ‘civics’ and ensure that their local relevance and impact are understood and part of their decision-making process.

If the White Paper is not at its best, however, it might not endure the end of the current political cycle, and even if it does, it might be resisted at all three levels in some places. It may not itself ensure system change. This tended to be confirmed in my previous work in 2019 on a UKRI pilot project with six Russell Group universities. We found that universities are proactive nowadays, sitting at the top table of local and regional leadership teams and offering fantastic advice and engagements. But there is a strong case that local elites in local leadership teams sometimes get too cosy to address the priorities and concerns of those not at the top table, which may be the primary intended beneficiaries of Levelling Up.

There is much more scope for smaller, specialist HE providers to put in their particular expertise and niches. In that aforementioned piece of work, we called them ‘challenger’ or ‘loosener’ universities. Local and regional leaders do not just need anchors, oversized and heavy objects that prevent movement; they need looseners: people who propel action. Suppose this is to be provided by the ‘anchor’ HEI. In that case, there needs to be whole university involvement (every large university has radical challengers within them), not just the university leadership team. And sometimes, a smaller, specialist challenger university should be welcomed into the leadership team for its loosener qualities and professional expertise.

We also need to ‘flip the question’. Ask not just how universities can get more involved in economic development, but rather ‘what do cities and places need from their universities?’, of which there usually is more than one and more than one different type of institution.

In this analysis, differences between places and between universities as institutions are everything. So whilst critical geographies were growing and strengthening university collaborations alongside others will be an absolute priority, there may also be geographies where the growth of universities should not be the default strategy.

Can we be confident that the Levelling Up White Paper gives us longevity?

I know there are these missions to 2030, but I would argue you will not achieve those missions by then: they are longer term than that. The UK seems to have a chronic problem compared to some of the other countries I have worked in with moving the deckchairs every five years or so, and if that happens, it will be a huge issue.

In terms of longevity, one of the biggest challenges I would give back to universities is they are potentially the last considerable institution standing, particularly in lagging regions. However, universities can be the institution with the independence, scale and resources to provide continuity whilst politics and political cycles change and deckchairs get moved. So, I would welcome universities and current leadership teams framing their long-term visions that may go beyond the 2030 mission dates to adapt as national Levelling Up missions evolve or are superseded by other policy priorities.

David Marlow is Managing Director of Third Life Economics, and a member of the Institute of Economic Development who arranged this article.

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Managing Director, A member of the Institute of Economic Development
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