How 'Golden Octagon' vision can transform North's economy and the push for net zero

Professor Charlie Jeffery’s vision of a fully-realised ‘Golden Octagon’ of Northern research universities has the potential to transform the region’s - and nation’s - economy. Chris Burn went to meet him in York.

One of the great ongoing challenges of academia is distilling important but complex information into language a layman can understand.

But Professor Charlie Jeffery, Vice Chancellor and President of the University of York, may well have hit upon a winning formula to sum up the intention behind the N8 Research Partnership; the creation of a Northern ‘Golden Octagon’ to complement the famous Southern ‘Golden Triangle’ of Oxford, Cambridge and London.

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Jeffery has recently been appointed chair of the board of directors for the N8 for a three-year term.

York University Vice Chancellor Charlie Jeffery who has recently been appointed as the chair of the N8 Research Partnership group of Northern universities.
Picture By Yorkshire Post Photographer,  James Hardisty.York University Vice Chancellor Charlie Jeffery who has recently been appointed as the chair of the N8 Research Partnership group of Northern universities.
Picture By Yorkshire Post Photographer,  James Hardisty.
York University Vice Chancellor Charlie Jeffery who has recently been appointed as the chair of the N8 Research Partnership group of Northern universities. Picture By Yorkshire Post Photographer, James Hardisty.

The formal explanation of the partnership is that it is “a strategic collaboration between the universities of Durham, Lancaster, Leeds, Liverpool, Manchester, Newcastle, Sheffield, and York, and aims to maximise the impact of this research base to enable business innovation and societal transformation”.

The use of ‘Golden Octagon’ as shorthand for this laudable ambition is something Jeffery came up with when speaking at the recent Convention of the North, he tells The Yorkshire Post in his office at the University of York’s Heslington Hall.

“I’ve used the phrase the Golden Octagon because the significance of this group of universities for the UK economy is already as much as the Golden Triangle,” says Jeffery, who used the term again in a recent article for higher education website WonkHe.

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“It could be even more if there is a commitment to rebalancing the UK economy and to think about how you can nurture the capabilities of the North better. I don’t mean that as in taking stuff off the South but releasing the capabilities of the North is absolutely vital for the UK economy and productivity levels and so on. If you can get those higher in the North, then we are really motoring as a national economy.”

He adds: “I was at the Convention of the North and I was doing a panel as N8 chair with the Northern Powerhouse Partnership bringing together funders and developers who have an interest in getting the most out of the economy and indeed in their own interests.

“It was a phrase I used in that context and I think it is a nice phrase - it is evocative but also says something about what the N8’s capability is. There aren’t many groupings that extend across the whole of the North.

“The N8 is one - from Lancaster and the North-West through to Manchester and Liverpool and on the East from York all the way up to Newcastle and everything in between, connecting also with the other 20-odd universities in the North.

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“You have got a grouping part of a bigger grouping which is absolutely central to the economic prospects of the North.”

He says mobilising the N8’s high-quality research for economic innovation is what the partnership is already engaged in but believes there is the potential to go much further and attract major investment to the region.

“We have an offer in three ways,” he explains.

“Firstly, we discover knowledge. The N8 is a group of leading research universities which discover new knowledge. Secondly, we teach our students amid that new knowledge so when they graduate they are equipped with it and can take that into the economy in whichever direction they go.

“The third thing we do is we can convene. We bring people together in all sorts of ways. Sometimes we can be a bridge across things that get divided by party politics. Sometimes we can be a bridge across different organisations and economic sectors that would ordinarily be competing with each other but have a shared interest in the capabilities that we have.

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“And we can be an attractor. If you get the public sector and private sector working with universities that becomes a really attractive locational incentive with companies moving to take advantage of the innovation and graduate talent.”

At a local level in York, one tangible example of this is BioYorkshire - a ten-year programme involving the university, Askham Bryan College and Fera Science. The intention is to become a national base to deliver the profitable bio-based production of chemicals, materials and fuels as well as supporting net zero food production and farming.

The York and North Yorkshire devolution deal sets out plans for national Government support for the initiative - including potential public sector investment and working to maximise private sector investment.

Jeffery says: “It is at heart a collaboration between the University of York, Askham Bryan College and Fera Science. It is a really interesting and essential combination. We have that research discovery and produce brilliant graduates, Askham Bryan College offers training and education opportunities for the rural economy across a range of skill levels and Fera Science is a fantastic industry-orientated set of laboratory facilities which provides a fantastic connection into the economy.

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“Put them together and you have a brilliant end-to-end programme - from discovery and research to all the skills needs through the connections into the private economy.

“That has clustering capabilities because all the local authorities in the region have supported this, it is in the devolution deal, we have an industry advisory board with some of the most important players in food, in chemicals, in energy. We’re talking with a number of venture funding organisations about that throughput of ideas into business innovation and business scale-up.

“This is fairly unique in devo deals in England and across the North. There is a commitment that basically says we are going to set up a committee of UK-level officials from Government and from the major research funders working together with you, the partnership, to find ways of funding this and produce a funding vehicle which could capture-collect and mobilise public and private sector investment.”

While other areas with devolution deals such as Teesside have established development corporations to regenerate former industrial sites, Jeffery says BioYorkshire has the potential to do the same in North Yorkshire.

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“A cluster isn’t a piece of land, it is a set of capabilities and that convening power. It is an investment into that collection of organisations which are mobilising around the research, the skills and that connectivity into the private sector. I think that is really exciting.

“I think this has the potential to really drive the economy in North Yorkshire and develop capabilities which could be applied anywhere in the world. It is effectively about a net zero circular economy.

“It is growing stuff, using it directly to produce alternatives to fossil fuels for the generation of energy or producing materials like plastics but it is also about making sure we don’t waste anything. The food industry has lots of waste but that can be repurposed in all sorts of ways - to extract starches which can be the feed stocks for plastics. In principle you can do all the things you do with oil from sugars, from starches and that is one of the key technologies we are working on here.

“Waste products we produce in various ways, you can get bacteria to digest them and turn them into something more useful, you can get insects to digest them and produce proteins which can be used as fertilisers or as animal feed. There is this opportunity to reduce what we waste and reduce our dependence on fossil fuels.

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“The strapline for the whole of the North Yorkshire devolution deal is the first carbon-negative region. Can we do it? I’m sure we can because we have lots of natural assets like the peatlands and so on but these new technologies will drive us in that direction.”

BioYorkshire also ties in with the wider vision of the Golden Octagon - with the idea originally coming out of the N8’s AgriFood programme and playing a role in broader regional efforts to deliver net zero.

“We are partly an N8 product. Also we are one component of a much wider N8 programme called Net Zero North. Different universities end up doing different things - we are in the biotechnology space, others have ended up in hydrogen which could be an alternative fuel, others have engineering capabilities, others have fantastic expertise in battery technologies.

“If you pull all that together, you have got a comprehensive programme for Net Zero North. It is kind of a scientific division of labour across the institutions.”

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