The eight most research-intensive universities in the Northern Powerhouse region add twice as much value to the economy than the entire Premier League, according to a new report.
But academics have warned that accelerated investment in infrastructure and transport is needed to make sure the sector continues to grow.
The N8 universities - Durham, Lancaster, Leeds, Liverpool, Manchester, Newcastle, Sheffield and York - add £6.6bn to the Northern economy per year and deliver a total of 119,000 full-time equivalent jobs.
The figures are included in a report by the N8 Research Partnership launched on Friday.
It said the total number of jobs accounted for by the eight universities is equivalent to all the jobs within a city the size of Salford.
The report states that the N8 universities attracted £1.26bn of research funding a year.
Of this, £127m (13 per cent) came from European Union sources.
The report found that the N8 universities add more to the economy of the north of England than the entire northern media industry, agriculture, or motor vehicle manufacturing sectors and provide consultancy services to more than 17,000 small and medium-sized businesses (SMEs).
Launching the document, York University vice-chancellor Professor Koen Lamberts, who chairs N8, said: “This research paints a compelling and comprehensive picture of the contribution our universities make to the Northern economy, creating jobs and prosperity for people from all walks of life.
“It makes abundantly clear that N8 universities are not just world-class research institutions, but also major economic enterprises, generating significant revenue and economic activity and driving inward investment.
“The Government’s Northern Powerhouse agenda can and should play a major role in creating an environment that enables our universities to generate even more benefit to the Northern and wider UK economy.
“Such benefit can only come, however, if there is further investment in innovation in the North: in inward investment, in transport and infrastructure.
“We need to be able to attract and retain the world’s most talented academics, researchers and students. We need to ensure that our students, staff and partners can easily access our world-leading facilities. And we need to attract innovative overseas businesses so that we have a genuinely international innovation and enterprise eco-system.”
Prof Lamberts also encouraged the Government to resolve uncertainty over international research funding for UK universities in light of the Brexit vote.
He said: “The N8 universities have always been global in outlook, focused on contributing to the world beyond the lecture hall or campus and this will continue despite the referendum result.
“The UK has some of the best universities in the world and our academics, researchers and students play a significant part in that success.
“However, we believe the Government must act swiftly to address the potential gap in research funding that might arise through our withdrawal from the EU.
“Such funding is essential if we are to retain our global standing and attract the brightest and best talent. It also plays a significant role in research and innovation, which directly leads to UK business creation and employment growth.”