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Key role for University in levelling up agenda, says Vice-Chancellor

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Published on 25 May 2022

University of Sunderland
University of Sunderland

Vice-Chancellor, Sir David Bell, has said the University of Sunderland “is a great example of a modern university that is central to the government’s aspiration to level up the country”.

It comes as a new report from MillionPlus, the Association for Modern Universities, found modern universities must be utilised as vital actors in the government’s levelling up agenda.

The report shows the expenditure of modern universities adds an economic benefit of £17bn across the UK, including supporting over 210,000 jobs in regions across the UK. 

It also demonstrates how modern universities play a key role in feeding local graduate labour markets, as over 68% of working graduates at MillionPlus universities, live, study and then find work in the same region after graduating, more than 20 % higher than the same figure for the whole university sector. Modern universities work closely with employers to create a variety of pathways into higher education including 128,000 higher apprenticeship starts between 2017–2022.

Sir David said: “Our career-focused and professions-facing curriculum is exactly what the businesses and public services of the city and the wider north-east of England need.

“In addition, a high percentage of our students are from the region and stay in the region, thus contributing to its continuing and future success and vitality.”

By providing graduates who overwhelmingly stay local, many of them in key public service professions, working with employers to create new pathways into education while employing thousands themselves, and through the huge economic impact they generate, modern universities are already difference makers in the levelling-up space. The report – Staying local to go far: modern universities as placemakers – challenges the government to make full use of these key anchor institutions.

The report launched with a pair of roundtable events in parliament yesterday (Tuesday, 24 May), together with the Northern Powerhouse Partnership, with MPs, Peers and other stakeholders in attendance.

Among others, the report recommends that the UK government should:

Utilise the knowledge, infrastructure and expertise of modern universities to address cold spots in higher education. 

Focus increased public R&D spending on innovation and knowledge exchange programmes, to increase the local impact of research.

Broaden the definition of ‘value’ of higher education, to account for the social impact of universities, including their cultural aspect in relation to place.

Strengthen and boost the public sector workforce pipeline in England by supporting students and graduates through the offer of a maintenance grant of up to £10k for all students in all relevant disciplines; and the introduction of a fee-loan forgiveness scheme for those remaining in their chosen profession for a minimum of at least five years.

Sarah Mulholland, Head of Policy at the Northern Powerhouse Partnership, said: “This robust and well-evidenced report makes clear exactly how important universities are to the levelling-up agenda and, if empowered to by policymakers, the role they can play in further tapping the vast pools of talent in cities and towns across the north.

“We see the impact of our modern universities across the northern regions every day, and the role they play in tackling major issues within northern communities cannot be underestimated. 

“This role can be seen clearly within the Medical School at the University of Sunderland, for example, one of the case studies in this report, which is playing a key role addressing health inequalities, a major northern issue and one that the levelling-up agenda must seek to address.”

Professor Rama Thirunamachandran, Vice-Chancellor of Canterbury Christ Church University and Chair of MillionPlus, said: “Modern universities are future-looking and can help to provide solutions to the challenges of the 21st century. Governments in both Westminster and Holyrood should reflect on the evidence presented within this report, which demonstrates the instrumental role universities have in boosting regional development. Modern universities are multi-faceted and adept at finding solutions to local problems. Their size and breadth mean they have the capacity to play a role as placemakers.”

Rachel Hewitt, Chief Executive of MillionPlus, said: “This report makes the case loud and clear for the UK and devolved governments to be forward-thinking in utilising the huge potential of modern universities with respect to investment, support and bolstering of their role within the levelling-up agenda and beyond.

“Through their commitment to place and increasing opportunity, modern universities, and MillionPlus universities in particular, are essential partners in any attempt to stamp out inequalities both between and within regions and spur on regional development.

“By harnessing the innovation, connectivity and drive of modern universities, the government can meet its levelling-up objectives and help ensure that anyone who chooses to can stay local to go far.”