'Yorkshire's universities are key to our region levelling up'

Education provides a route to recovery, Yorkshire Universities’ Dr Peter O’Brien says, but not without challenges, Geraldine Scott reports.

With nearly 200,000 students studying in Yorkshire every year, the higher education sector is a jewel in the crown of what the region has to offer.

It brings £2.9bn a year to the economy, and provides more than 54,000 jobs.

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But with freshers’ weeks and lectures looking dramatically different to last year, and fees still topping £9,250, many students are questioning whether the university experience is still worth it.

Executive director of Yorkshire Universities, Dr Peter O'Brien. Photo: Submitted

Dr Peter O’Brien, executive director of Yorkshire Universities – a group representing 12 institutions in the region – says it is, and even though it will not be the same, the quest to return to some sort of reality means students returning to Yorkshire this month is more important than ever.

And he said the ability of Yorkshire’s universities to recover is pivotal to the Government fulfilling its levelling-up promises.

“Universities have never closed during the lockdown,” Dr O’Brien said, and data showed there was a two per cent increase in undergraduates starting their university careers this year in Yorkshire compared to last year.

“Part of the reason is maybe we’re in the midst of an economic crisis and higher education is probably more attractive than ever before for young people considering their options as they come out of doing their A-levels,” Dr O’Brien said.

“And we’ve also had the A-level situation – if I can call it that – in August, where universities have had to very quickly look to see how they can accommodate students whose grades, match courses, and they’ve had to adapt to that in a very short space of time.”

A Government U-turn which allowed students to use the grades their teachers predicted they would have gained caused many courses to be oversubscribed, with universities calling out for more funding to help them cope.

“We’ve put in a very strong case, and certainly our members put in a very strong case to Government to argue that there should be some additional resources come to the higher education sector,” Dr O’Brien said.

“Not only to deal with the immediate consequences of the lockdown and the pandemic, and the potential uncertainty around student numbers, but about the fact that we need our universities to be there in place, working hard and being central to the recovery.”

And without that, Dr O’Brien said the Government promise to level up the areas of the country such as Yorkshire, where traditionally opportunity has not been equal to the South, would fail.

“The levelling-up agenda for Yorkshire is so important.

“But it will only really happen when we have very strong institutions, universities working with colleges and local authorities, with the private sector.

“And if there’s any sense that those institutions are in a very precarious position, then the levelling up agenda and developing a strong regional economy for Yorkshire will face challenges,” he said.

Part of that means increasing the research and development spend in the region.

In life sciences, for example, think tank IPPR found earlier this year that the North received £4bn less a year in health research and development than the South.

Dr O’Brien said: “We’ve got some fantastic research and innovation assets in Yorkshire, I’m thinking about the Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre in Sheffield and Nexus at Leeds, 3M BIC in Huddersfield, the Wolfson Centre in Bradford, or the Biorenewables Centre at York.

“All these assets are critical assets to developing new ideas, new products, new processes, around that question about improving innovation, which is going to be so important to levelling up.

“So more investment in research and innovation building on those assets is something we’re calling for, and the Government has, to be fair to it, committed to increase research and innovation spending over the next period quite significantly, and that’s welcome.

“We need to attract more private investment, but that’s going to be quite difficult in the current climate.”

And he said part of that was pivoting to a focus on place when it came to national research and innovation spending.

“Too often, I think the routes to deploying that investment nationally have ignored or have not necessarily counted the whole question about regional diversity, that places are different.

“And so there’s a big strong push from our members and from other universities in the North of England to ensure that Government thinks about research and innovation from a perspective of what it does for regions.”

Not every region has the equivalent of Yorkshire Universities, Dr Peter O’Brien said, showing our strengths.

He said members ranged from the prestigious and traditional University of York to newer institutions such as Leeds Trinity, but they were bound by the same sense of place.

“There is something about Yorkshire as a region as a place that binds people together in a sense of common identity,” he said. “And I think that gives us our raison d’etre, a USP there, and that’s going to be so important in the context of levelling up.

“I think that that’s so important for us as well to be that voice for the region.”

And he was confident that with that additional investment, Yorkshire’s higher education sector could drive both learning from the pandemic as well as narrowing some health inequalities that have plagued the country for many years.

“I think very much looking at the medical sciences with a pandemic, looking at the whole question of economic recovery, social economic inequalities, and the levelling-up agenda, we’ve got some fantastic research that we could deploy in a public policy setting.

“Hopefully that is going to address some of those fundamental challenges,” he said.