The UPP Foundation, a charity which provides grants to universities, charities and other higher education bodies, recently published two reports examining the role of universities in the ‘levelling up’ agenda, and in addressing the forthcoming employment crisis.
Jane Robinson, who is Dean for Engagement and Place at Newcastle University and a member of the North East Local Enterprise Partnership (LEP) Business Growth Board, and the North East COVID-19 Economic Response Group, explains how the recommendations tie in with work already taking place in the North East.
In the face of the challenges that COVID-19 has brought, the role that universities have to play in the UK’s social and economic recovery is widely recognised, and more important than ever.
When it comes to the levelling up agenda, there’s a danger that the impact of the pandemic could increase inequalities that already exist and that it could disproportionately affect regions like the North East, where we’ve seen large numbers of workers on furlough and an increase in unemployment.
The UPP Foundation’s reports identified a number of areas where universities can help to mitigate this impact and play a part in building our future economy, and I’m pleased to say that the report’s recommendations reflect the strong, collaborative approach that is already being taken here in the North East.
The first area identified in the report is town centre regeneration. Here in the North East LEP area, the four universities – Durham, Newcastle, Northumbria and Sunderland - play an active role in our towns and city centres. For example in Newcastle, our Urban Observatory has tracked city centre footfall during lockdown and helped develop an app called “How Busy is Toon”. In Blyth, we’re partnering with the Offshore Renewable Energy Catapult and Northumberland County Council to develop the area’s capabilities in offshore renewables.
The report also highlights job creation as a focus and, again, this is an area where all four universities play a key role. Our research and innovation is contributing to the key growth sectors highlighted in the Regional Recovery Plan, and together we are educating over 80,000 students in the region, who will form the high-skilled workforce needed for the sustainable and inclusive economy of the future. The universities are also some of the region’s biggest employers and it’s important that we are good employers, so I’m pleased to say that the university is an accredited Living Wage Employer, and that we work to invest into the local economy through our supply chain.
The third area of focus is skills development – an area where North East universities work closely with the North East LEP, colleges and training providers to support people in our region to upskill and reskill, which is especially important where we have seen large numbers of people furloughed. Programmes like Uni Connect aim to increase the levels of Higher Education participation in our region and provide people with the skills they need in the workplace, both now and in the future.
Research, development and innovation was also identified as an area of focus. We know that the spend on R&D is lower in the North East than in other parts of the UK and that universities represent a significant proportion of this spend. Our aim is to support more businesses to innovate, and the Northern Accelerator programme – a collaboration between Durham, Newcastle, Northumbria and Sunderland universities - has already been very successful in accelerating the translation of world-class research into commercial opportunities. Likewise, we hope that the Arrow project, which supports innovation in SMEs will soon be expanded across the region.
Finally, the UPP Foundation highlighted the role that universities can play in supporting the NHS and, once again, this is something we can see happening in our region. Universities in the North East have used their expertise in medicine, health and social care not only to provide a skilled workforce but are also translating research and innovation to benefit society. The North East Integrated COVID Hub is the first of its kind in the UK and is a fantastic example of a partnership between NHS organisations, Newcastle City Council, local universities, public health and industry.
It’s clear that universities can help us to overcome both the short term and long term challenges that we face as a region and that together we can build a skilled workforce and a strong, sustainable economy.
And working together to face these challenges is key: collaboration will be at the heart of a successful levelling up agenda, which can benefit every community in the North East.
Find out more about the North East COVID-19 Economic Response Group here.