Dr Graham Baldwin is the MillionPlus Treasurer and Vice-Chancellor at the University of Central Lancashire (UCLAN). This is a sponsored post by MillionPlus.
Each year conference season gives us the chance to come together to discuss interesting ideas, debate controversial topics, and pick up trends considered throughout the fringe events taking place.
MillionPlus has been holding events at Conservative Party Conference for many years, and it was particularly pleasing to be back in person this time around, with the ability to meet colleagues from the sector, as well as interested observers from across the country.
It won’t have escaped the attention of anyone present at fringes or speeches that ‘levelling up’, and with it the importance of place and our local communities, was the dominant theme of the entire conference.
Many groups, ourselves included, framed our discussions with this notion squarely in the forefront of our minds, and even those that did not couldn’t escape addressing it.
Although you could be forgiven for thinking events might get repetitive due to this, what I witnessed was questions becoming more interesting as time went on, and answers that had greater depth, beginning to really hone in on what we, as a country, hope to gain from levelling up, and how we can begin to start working towards such an ambition.
What can we do to really meet regional need, and to allow local actors to develop the solutions that work for them? How do we ensure there is opportunity and access to the right education pathways for everyone, no matter where they live? How can we restore pride and a sense of community in places that have been too often overlooked?
Questions like these are incredibly important, but incredibly challenging too, and over conference I heard many answers that pointed directly at us within the university sector and challenged us to think about what we can do in this wider endeavour.
It is a challenge I take seriously, and to many who asked it I gave the same response – much of this work is already being done, you just have to know where to look. I invite commentators, journalists, MPs and Ministers alike to come and see what modern universities are already doing, and then perhaps start to realise the enormous engines already at work, as well as the immense potential that exists to do even more.
In addition to the main campus in Preston, my university, the University of Central Lancashire (UCLAN) has two others in the UK, one in Burnley, the other between Workington and Whitehaven in West Cumbria. It would be fair to say these areas were slipping towards ‘left behind’ territory.
As a university, we developed these sites in order to fine-tune provision to meet the economic and skills demands for those areas. We worked closely with local authorities, NHS health trusts, and further education providers to create an offer of relevance and practical importance for the towns and wider regions they serve.
Students recruited in these areas could be just out of school or college, or mature learners looking to up-skill or re-skill. The presence of these institutions has made a seismic difference in preventing the loss of talented local people and their skills, or, worse still, the loss of hope and belief in education as a way to improve your life and the lives of those around you.
My institution is by no means alone in this, and at modern universities across the country we see local students and local industry benefitting massively from the partnerships that have developed in their areas. The University of Cumbria has developed a collaborative commercial relationship with Sellafield to provide specialist education, training and the qualifications necessary to deliver the projects for the vital nuclear industry there, transforming opportunity and working to meet the exact needs of that region.
At the University of Sunderland there is a knowledge exchange programme to support product development and technological advancement for SMEs in the North East, amounting to over 6,000 hours of support given to manufacturers all over that region.
In London, a city and region containing vast inequality, the University of East London is part of a ground-breaking collaboration with Amazon Web Services to integrate its work in artificial intelligence and cloud skills into the student curriculum to give students the ability to go into jobs in cloud computing at the very cutting edge of the industry. Projects like these are happening everywhere, with universities integrating teaching, research, and industry need to get on with the job of what we are now calling levelling up.
A key reflection I have from conference, and one that I believe does need to be repeated, is that too many people want precisely these things to be happening but don’t realise that, in fact, they already are. They may not be at the scale necessary to make change on a national level just yet, but these organic partnerships are delivering, and with greater recognition, support and investment there is every chance they could transform even more lives, and their local communities with them.
Modern universities are part of a diverse sector, and in truth no two institutions are truly alike. However, many moderns specialise in the technical and vocational work that, when allied to teaching and research excellence, delivers upon both widening access to a greater talent pool and offering real-world industry-facing courses that boost regional skills and meet business need.
In an era where we need to level up across the board, but with public finances hit hard by the pandemic, it is sensible, even critical, that as country we utilise institutions and networks that already exist and are already delivering. We do not need to reinvent the wheel when we have hundreds of them spinning out across the country already, getting on with the job and making the difference that the Government, and many at conference, are asking for.
What is stopping us then? If universities are so good at this, why haven’t we addressed the questions already and effectively levelled up? It is a fair question, and one that we need to answer honestly.
First, to some extent, I would point to the very many successes across the country where, in point of fact, we have done just that. As industry pulled out of some places, and areas started to fall behind, it has been modern universities that have revived towns and cities, spreading opportunity, reskilling the workforce, and restoring civic pride and economic success.
However, too often these achievements are overlooked while the focus remains on a select few institutions very often those attended by the majority of those involved in policy making. We tend to pay lip service to the importance of technical and vocational education but real value remains concentrated on the most academic subjects at the most “prestigious” institutions.
As a country, we cannot hope to level up, unless we also open up our minds and think differently. As the saying goes, insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result, but policy in skills and higher education has been guilty of this for too long.
Be it hyper-concentrating research funding at a handful of institutions or placing greater value on league table positions and salaries instead of what we add to students’ lives. Continuing with this mindset will do nothing to change how we think and operate, and it will lead us to keep asking the same questions I heard in Manchester at conferences way into the future.
Education remains the best gateway to success for a nation as much as it is for an individual. We need to make sure it stays accessible, we need to work collaboratively with a strong and secure school and further education sector, and we need to give all of our incredible and diverse universities the recognition, support and stability they need so that they can invest time and resource into their local communities that are the very essence of the levelling up agenda.