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Image: Chris McAndrew [CC BY 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Chris Skidmore suggests the prime minister’s levelling up speech gave universities plenty to ponder

So the prime minister has set out his big vision for levelling up. His speech yesterday, was entitled simply ‘The Prime Minister’s Levelling Up Speech’.

Yet what does levelling up exactly mean? Quite a lot, it seems, if the number of policy areas the speech lists are anything to go by—from crime, to public health, football, bike lanes and tramlines, and even house prices. Levelling up investment, levelling up life chances, levelling up life expectancy rates—it was all there, in a wide-ranging narrative of what needs to be corrected.

Those criticising the speech as lacking in policy detail are missing the point; the wider mission, it seems, was for the prime minister to show he is keen to return to locally led solutions, with bespoke devolution deals on the agenda. And with that comes an opportunity for universities that is too good to pass over.

Future government thinking

Firstly, however, it’s worth considering what the prime minister thinks about the sector. Peppered throughout the text were mentions of the impact and importance of universities and research, pointing to the future direction of government thinking—worth consideration by anyone involved in higher education policy.

There was clear concern about levelling up access to university in particular; the speech pointed to the low participation rates of pupils on free school meals outside of London compared to within the capital, with free school meals pupils in London twice as likely to attend university.

Coupled with this was a wider concern about the regional disparity in skills levels between local authorities. As the prime minister stated: “It is in post-16 education where the differences across our society are the starkest. It cannot be right that Bath has 78 per cent with a level-3 or a level equivalent qualification and Bradford has only 42 per cent, and that is why this government is obsessed with skilling up our population.”

To this he added: “We love our universities and we believe they are one of the glories of this country but we need to escalate the value of practical and vocational education that can transform people’s lives. And that is why we are rolling out T-levels and apprenticeships because we know that higher level apprentices earn more than the average graduate five years after graduation.”

If that is not a message for the higher education sector to embrace the potential for developing wider level-4 and level-5 qualifications, degree apprenticeships, and other opportunities for employer-based qualifications, I don’t know what is.

In contrast, when the speech focused on graduate outcomes, the concern was more about geography—that “two-thirds of graduates from our top 30 universities end up in London”. This was a concern recently expressed at the launch by the Lifelong Education Commission of our place-based inquiry. The chief executive of Doncaster Council, Damian Allen, raised the issue of graduates leaving the local area once they had attended university.

Civic duty

This is one of the key challenges for universities to demonstrate: that they are by their very mission and nature civic institutions determined to improve their local areas. That they want not merely deliver top qualifications for their students but to deliver improved life chances for all citizens within their community.

Unlock this puzzle—and I really don’t think this is a policy Rubik’s cube—and universities can be on the front foot, as proactive, agenda-setting agents of change—perfect organisations to help level up the communities in which they exist.

One of the most important passages in the prime minister’s speech for me was the call for an end to the endless churn of local delivery agencies. Stability is an essential ingredient for success, so what better than to lean in on the existing networks that local universities provide, and to recognise the value of anchor institutions in delivering change?

There was much more in the speech on R&D, private and international sector investment and the importance of green technologies, in all of which the university sector is well placed to help deliver permanent and recognisable solutions, much as it has done in tackling the Covid pandemic.

I believe there is still a deal to be struck between the higher education sector and government—an educational version of the BBC charter, which sets out the rights and responsibilities of the sector, while balancing its independence with its future financial stability. And levelling up can provide the starting point for this deal.

If universities recognise that they hold the power to deliver on the government’s levelling up agenda, and, above all, demonstrate how they can show real and rapid change, then they should take the prime minister’s speech seriously, and, just as he says, reach out to show how they are part of the solution, not part of the problem.

Chris Skidmore is co-chair of the All-Party Parliamentary University Group and a two-time former minister for universities.