Exclusive - Universities forge alliance to drive Northern Powerhouse agenda

Jake Berry, Northern Powerhouse Minister. Picture by Tony Johnson.
Jake Berry, Northern Powerhouse Minister. Picture by Tony Johnson.

AN UNPRECEDENTED alliance of all 28 of the North’s universities will be forged this week to drive forward the Northern Powerhouse agenda by creating an “energy economy” that could lead the world in developing environmentally-friendly power sources.

Senior figures from higher education institutions across Yorkshire, the North-East and North-West will gather in Hull on Wednesday to discuss proposals which organisers say would take advantage of an “under-tapped resource” on campuses across the North.

The initiative follows a call last year by Jake Berry, the Northern Powerhouse minister, for an “Ivy League of the North” in which universities could “combine their technical knowledge, expertise and know-how to build the economy of tomorrow and create a highly-skilled, highly-educated new generation of graduates”.

Prof Susan Lea, the vice-chancellor of Hull University, who will open the conference, said the collaboration of all the North’s universities was “vital to our Northern Powerhouse aspirations”.

She said: “United, we can create a culture of innovation that will help shape a dynamic, sustainable and low-carbon economy for the north. Not only will this help balance the north-south divide, but it will benefit the nation as a whole and further enhance the north of England’s position on the global stage.”

The prospect of turning the so-called estuary economy of the Humber into a “low carbon demonstrator” for the UK will be discussed by vice-chancellors and their deputies.

Bill Walker, the director of strategic relationships at Hull University, claimed that despite competing for students, collaboration was “in the DNA” of universities.

He said: “There are things we can influence and things we can’t. But what we can do is work together much more closely on matters of real priority and real importance.

“Low carbon energy is a major global challenge to which we can bring a distinct Northern proposition, if we can work together more.

“If we can try and influence future investment decisions and funding opportunities around a environmental theme that’s of huge significance to the world, then why wouldn’t we?”

He added: “What’s needed is innovation. And that’s where the universities fit in. You’ve got a huge, pretty under-tapped resource of universities across the North, coming together to do something that’s going to really help boost the North’s contribution to the UK economy. We can all say we are the best in something. But we’re probably only best at a very small part of it.

This is about the whole being greater than the sum of the parts.”

The coalition will include the N8 Research Partnership of the eight research-intensive universities in the North, including those in York, Leeds and Sheffield.

Its director, Dr Annette Bramley, said collaboration between universities and with businesses, was “essential for addressing key issues like climate change, rebalancing the UK economy and providing more high-value jobs for the Northern Powerhouse”.

The Humber - which is home to emerging offshore wind farms but also traditional polluters like refineries and power stations attracted there by the convenience of an estuary – would be the perfect location to pioneer a greener economic model built on low carbon energy, Wednesday’s conference will hear.

Bill Walker, of Hull University, said: “Carbon emitters are also big employers. We need to collaborate to find ways to use the opportunities of clean energy from offshore wind to not only create new economies, but also to decarbonise the very important economies we already have.”