As the Vice Chancellor of a University in the North East (of England), which has one of the highest concentrations of ‘left-behind’ areas in the UK, I know the potential for the crucial civic role of universities in the government’s levelling up policy.
Across our region we have the highest rates in England of poverty, unemployment, poor health and early death. Our young people are amongst the least likely to access higher education. But a negative picture is too easily painted of the North East and ignores its assets. Ours is a region that has a significant sense of community and identity, rich and diverse cultures in music, art and theatre, untamed countryside and many green shoots of industrial renewal. The North East has been subject to structural inequalities over many years. In the last decade it has been particularly disproportionately affected by austerity compared with other regions and therefore has fared worse in terms of gaps between productivity, earnings and access to good jobs. The case for significant investment in this region is long overdue.
The usual articulation of levelling up in terms of industrial investment overlooks the powerful economic impact of inclusive growth, the combining of prosperity with equity. This involves investment in social infrastructure including the education, social and care economy. For example, the UK women’s Budget Group has shown that investing public funds in childcare and elder care services is more effective in boosting employment, earnings and economic growth than investing in construction and fosters gender equality. It is also worth remembering that the White Paper includes the enhancement of educational attainment and renovation of the social and cultural fabric of parts of the UK in its definition of levelling up.
Our commitment to social justice and long-standing local and national partnerships enable us to contribute through our social science research to levelling up. I consider three areas: policy, skills and communities.
First policy. Our social scientists contribute to policy through their critical analysis and engaged research in multiple areas such as playing out and street play, catering for refugees and asylum seekers, and children’s needs as a result of the pandemic. We have found that through new ways of closer joint working between regional organisations we can best inform place-based policy-making and practice and make a difference. This is happening now in a number of areas and essential to all are social science methodologies and partnerships based on co-production.
A new partnership sets out to achieve policy impact from the research we have already carried out. Insights North East is focused on wellbeing, net zero and inclusive growth. This involves the NHS, North of Tyne Combined Authority, Newcastle City Council, Newcastle University and Northumbria University. A climate action plan should be a central focus of levelling up. Newcastle University would be well placed to support this regionally given our target for net zero by 2030. We are 1st in the UK for sustainable development in the 2022 Times Higher Education Impact Rankings.
We also have partnerships focused on, the eradication of child poverty. The North East Child Poverty Commission is a regional cross-sector stakeholder network supported by social scientists in Newcastle University.
A great example of the co-production approach is our involvement in the Applied Research Collaboration (ARC) for the North East and North Cumbria which aims to deliver innovative research that achieves better and fairer health. The ARC brings together six regional universities, the NHS, health and social care providers, local authorities, the voluntary sector, community groups, members of the public and others.
Next skills. Our contribution to the regional skill-base is necessarily varied and strategic. Of course a key contribution to regional skills is our graduates with around a quarter choosing to stay in the region. Universities like Newcastle have a key role in improving school attainment by working with partners as is the case for the North East Raising Aspiration Partnership (NERAP) and the North East Uni Connect Programme which we lead. We launched an off-site centre in 2021 to give free exam tutoring for disadvantaged young people through IntoUniversity. North East Solidarity in Teaching, an organisation supporting refuges and asylum seekers and founded by ex-students, provides many opportunities for skills development particularly English language. Our Inclusive Newcastle Knowledge Centre is building evaluation capacity across the range of our widening participation work. It also provides an evidence-base for the impact of particular interventions providing a proper research base for widening participation and skills development.
We make an important contribution to skills in emerging areas of economic growth such as electrification. We have agreed to expand our partnership with Newcastle College Group (NCG) to include Education Partnership North East (EPNE) and the Off-shore Renewable Catapult (OREC) to develop pathways linking HE and FE to work with employers to meet local skills needs. We also launched our first suite of degree apprenticeships in September 2019 and now have 100 apprentice enrolments.
And finally but perhaps most importantly, communities. I am very proud of the importance our civic role gives to working with communities. For universities not to seem elite and aloof we have to work hard. All the partnerships already mentioned generate community links. But we have other strong structures at various scales to enable different kinds of community interaction. Furthermore working in partnership with communities is central to recommendations from our social scientists working in public health.
Our Social Justice Advisory Group brings together practitioners from across the VCSE sector as well as academics, professional services colleagues and students. Through regular social justice forums, it collaborates on regional problems and challenges such as poverty and sanctuary.
Our deep citizen engagement is made possible through our founding membership of the local Citizens UK alliance, Tyne and Wear Citizens. Through listening and building community leadership and capacity, our staff and students take part in action groups on poverty, mental health, the environment and racism. We made the decision to pay real living wage with the support of Tyne and Wear Citizens in 2018. Indeed, a key signifier of inclusive grown is that the number of living wage employers has increased from 30 in 2017 to 211 in 2022. Since September 2021 we now employ our own community organiser from Citizens to embed the principles and practice across the organisation. With Tyne and Wear Citizens we received a 2021 Champions award from the Living Wage Foundation for the listening campaign that led to our paying real living wage.
One partnership initiated by researchers that is now a strategic commitment is the West End Children’s Community (WECC). This is a place-based alliance of 10 organisations including 8 schools, a children’s poverty charity, Newcastle University, the city council, and cultural organisations. WECC is trying to create a new model of how schools and local organisations can contribute to the well-being of the areas and populations they serve, including tackling poverty and building a more sustainable community working in collaboration with those populations.
Dwellbeing Shieldfield, a recent winner at our 2022 Engagement and Place Awards, is a co-operative for people of all ages and backgrounds in a particular area of Newcastle where University researchers play an active role. Its aim through regular social events and educational activities such as group walks, coffee meet-ups, planting and growing food, youth activities, and making improvements to our neighbourhood, is for community members to play an active role in shaping life together.
Arts and culture are central to having a ‘pride in place’ and contributes substantially to the North East economy and therefore to inclusive growth. We have many strong collaborative partnerships in the cultural sector such as with Tyne and Wear Archives and Museums, Creative Fuse and the New Bridge Project.
All these examples have grown from our commitment to our role as a truly civic University and an anchor institution in our city and region. Perhaps what I am most proud of are the values we have developed for our work with communities. We have learned the importance of co-production and work based on an active mutual respect; we have discovered the importance of listening if the University is to engage seriously with the complex needs of various communities; and above all, we know and appreciate the value of joined up, strategic partnerships.
Photo Credit: Juliette Herlem on Unsplash
About the author
Professor Chris Day is Vice-Chancellor and President at Newcastle University. Chris was previously a Consultant Hepatologist with an international reputation in medical research. He is a member of the Universities UK Board, Chair of the Office for Strategic Co-ordination of Health Research (OSCHR), Chair of the N8 Group of Research Universities, and Deputy Lieutenant of Tyne and Wear.