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“The governor view” – the Levelling Up White Paper

The hotly anticipated Levelling Up White Paper has been described by ministers as a “system change” that will spread opportunity and prosperity across the UK.

Higher education is not explicitly referenced in the 12 “national missions” to be achieved by 2030, leading some commentators to conclude that universities have been somewhat sidelined. However, the document does outline the various roles that the government expects universities to play as centres for research and innovation, local and regional anchor institutions and as a route to open up opportunities for those in “forgotten” communities (see Advance HE News Alert).

Governors in institutions outside the “golden triangle” have applauded the pledge to focus more Research & Development funding outside the Greater South East. However as one governor of a post-92 university in the south west pointed out, this ambition has a long but unfulfilled history.

“The aim to tackle regional disparities in R&D funding has been around for years,” he said. “The government does not control where research funding councils allocate funding or where big funders such as the Wellcome Trust put their money. Government departmental funding for R&D, which it can control and which it has promised to spend more of outside the golden triangle, is just not a huge amount compared to funding bodies.”

Nevertheless, some governors see the explicit commitment in the white paper to invest more research funding in lagging regions as a springboard opportunity for universities to emphasise the levelling up potential of R&D projects and develop strategic relationships with branches of government and public bodies.   

Three £100 million pilot Innovation Accelerators announced in Greater Manchester, the West Midlands and the Glasgow City-Region, offer institutions in those regions the chance to play a significant role. However a number of universities have questioned how these areas were chosen. One governor suggested that political expediency, rather than a real assessment of need, was behind the decisions, with Labour strongholds “almost discriminated against”.

The recognition in the white paper of the importance of place generally and of universities specifically as local and regional civic institutions was regarded as a potential opportunity, particularly for less research-intensive institutions with higher proportions of local students and which already work closely with local colleges and employers.

“There is a strong awareness among our governors of the importance of being an anchor institution,” said a governor in Wales. “Because we are one of the lower tariff universities our focus has very much been to maintain our commerciality to make us an anchor institution. It has been a focus for us certainly over last six years since I have been on the governing body.”

Local partnerships that enable education providers to gain a full picture of local and regional economies and respond quickly and flexibly to the needs of students and employers are what the government envisages.

Governors emphasise that this work has always been central to universities’ mission and has intensified in recent years, as employability has come under increasing scrutiny. Understanding local skills requirements over the next decade, monitoring how well their institution is collaborating with business, and creating new enterprises locally and regionally, is a role governors can play.

“I think the expectation that universities show a greater commitment to civil responsibility and undertake more activity to boost the fortunes of local people is very laudable,” said one governor. “But I’d like to see more stress on the central importance of higher and further education institutions to levelling up through the creation of new businesses and courses which lead to new jobs and new skills locally and regionally.”

He cites the example of his university’s partnership with a health body which will create several hundred places for students, both school-leavers and re-training mature students, on health education courses which will lead to jobs.

Another governor highlighted the provision of degree apprentices at his institution in sectors such as healthcare, construction, IT and engineering, which he sees as vital for regional economic prosperity.

One governor suggested, however, that there was a potential lack of flexibility, particularly at Russell Group institutions, in introducing new courses and closing courses that were less successful in employability terms.

“New forms of qualifications are difficult to turn around,” he said. “Internal processes mean universities have lots of staff that you can’t easily make redundant or retrain; you can’t take on and get rid of people ad hoc. I wouldn’t necessarily want the university to be able to do that but it does restrain movement in some ways and may mean that new providers can respond more quickly.”

Some governors questioned whether civic responsibility was, or should be, a priority for governance in elite research intensive universities.

“Places like Oxford don’t even mention the regional economy, while places like Derby and Lincoln, for instance, are very closely enmeshed,” said one. “Many universities regard themselves as global institutions. You might want your Oxfords or your Imperials to be more regionally focused but they won’t be because they have much wider horizons – and nationally we would want them to have.”

Already announced but repeated in the White Paper is the government expectation, to be monitored by the OfS in Access and Participation plans, for university–school partnerships to be expanded and strengthen. The aim is to raise attainment, particularly in levelling up areas, thereby expanding the pool of pupils with the qualifications to succeed in HE and FE.

From a governance point of view, this expectation has cost and staffing implications and could warrant a rethink of current widening participation outreach endeavours.

For some governors, however, the prospect of higher education being asked to push up standards in underperforming schools felt akin to “passing the buck”. As the governor of a Russell Group institution in the south of England puts it: “We are very engaged with schools and have some very successful schemes and foundation years but I don’t think the board would consider it the university’s job to teach pupils”.

Instead, governors view the significant challenge of “sorting out schooling and narrowing the grade differential between the more and the less affluent” as the government’s job.

“It is too easy to blame universities for not admitting more students from poor backgrounds,” said a governor from a post-92 university. “I heard a presentation from the Office for Students recently which said it was a ‘failure of ambition’ to not expect students from disadvantaged backgrounds to do as well as those from more affluent backgrounds. But that is just dishonest. All the research shows that this is the reality. Pupils with less good entry grades do less well. It takes more teaching and input to support students from poor backgrounds but there is no recognition of this in the funding.”

Governors also point to the potential contradiction between the government’s widening access ambitions and its plans to pursue policies to cut down on university numbers to pay for an ill-defined “skills revolution”.

“The trouble with cutting down on university numbers is: who gets cut out? It’s the poor that get cut out. That contradicts the widening participation goals,” said one governor. “You don’t get levelling up by reducing the proportion of young people from poor backgrounds going to university. If you cut numbers, if you put in a minimum tariff, you are going to be countering levelling up, not contributing to it.”

Measures to address school-level educational disparities and underachievement in 55 areas were outlined in the White Paper but governors have doubts as to whether the “Education Investment Area” plans are enough to make a difference.

“You can’t spend 10 minutes looking at education data and not come to the conclusion that the country is incredibly uneven and that tackling this could make the most significant difference to young people’s life chances,” said the governor of an alternative provider. “However, the scale of the ambition in the White Paper is not matched by the scale of the funding. It is all talk and no trousers at this point.”

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