The role of Higher Education in the development of a Northern Powerhouse

Blog by Emily Wolton, Yorkshire Universities

The ‘Northern Powerhouse’ evokes the importance of the north for the country as a whole: England needs a fully-functioning not a lop-sided economy. It is also a rallying call to those of us who live and work in the region. 

Readers with memories of the ‘Northern Way’ (whatever became of it?) will be cautious in expecting too much from what may end up as yet another convenient political slogan. But we have to be positive in assuming that the current interest in the potential of the north has some currency. And even if it doesn’t, the challenges we face to develop the northern economy (and all the concomitant social and civic benefits that go with it) are real and need a response.

For the north has undeniable issues to overcome. It has lower qualification rates than nationally – especially at the higher levels (NVQ4 and above). Closing this skills gap must be a priority given the links between higher qualifications and productivity, higher earnings, and greater economic resilience. But we are not closing it. One of the issues is that ‘skills’ is too often equated with ‘lower level skills’: for economic growth, higher level skills are what matter – and (according to a number of studies) are what employers are increasingly demanding.

We also need high growth companies – companies in the north grow more slowly than those in the south. In particular, too few SMEs invest in research and development or even seem to understand the need for this or where to look for help. It’s this kind of investment that generates innovation and thereby increases productivity.

Economic growth requires ‘research’, ‘innovation’ and ‘skills’. These are often addressed separately but in reality they are inter-related: ‘innovation’ is the application of insights gained from ‘research’, which in turn requires people with ‘skills’ – higher-order skills including making connections, spotting opportunities and asking questions. The ability of a company to innovate depends upon highly skilled, enterprising leaders, and employees who can make new business ideas work. 

Why should higher education get involved in these issues? Surely what universities do is research and teach? Yes, but these activities are not divorced from economic development.

One positive aspect of the current environment is that universities are seen by government as key to raising levels of productivity. Universities are, for a start, highly successful businesses themselves by any measure (including their international reach and reputation). They are also at the heart of an innovation ecosystem, bringing together the creation of new ideas (through ‘research’), employable and creative graduates (through ‘teaching’) and engagement with business (through consultancy and other forms of ‘knowledge exchange’). These things run together, for example the ‘teaching’ of students often includes working in and with businesses (through enterprise schemes, higher level apprenticeships and placements).Universities are also working with younger students, for example by setting up university technical colleges and raising the aspirations of school students.

The Northern Powerhouse concept cannot be realised without a healthy, vibrant HE sector.

So what is Yorkshire Universities’ role in the development of a Northern Powerhouse? We have been working collaboratively on these issues for some time, pooling Yorkshire’s universities’ collective strengths and assets to achieve greater impact, stimulating innovation and supporting businesses to grow via collaboration with the knowledge base. The most recent, successful, example of this is the European-funded ‘Yorkshire Innovation Fund’ which involved collaboration between universities and local companies to develop business ideas for new products and services; 200 businesses were supported across 10 different sectors, contributing £1.32 million to the region’s economy. Such projects show what is possible; we have the people, the models and the systems to work productively with business but they need to be used much more widely and with greater impact.

Yorkshire Universities operates (by definition) within Yorkshire. Unfortunately its two sister organisations (North West Universities Association and Universities for the North East) no longer operate, so working across the whole of the north of England’s HE has become more complex. We are committed to playing our part in sharing our experience and contributing to a wider development that enables the universities of the north to grow the economy and with that to improve the social and cultural environment of this part of the country and - beyond that – of the UK as a whole.

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