Yorkshire is a paradox of world class assets and widening inequalities - Dr Peter O’Brien

Yorkshire has a truly world renowned brand - a fantastic region, full of potential, vibrant culture and great assets – not least the 12 higher education institutions who make up Yorkshire Universities.

But amidst the fall-out from Covid and a cost-of-living crisis, economic, social, and spatial inequalities have widened in a region home to the third lowest life expectancy in the UK.

Decades of under-investment in the region’s infrastructure has also reduced and limited connectivity between people and places. Yorkshire is competing in an increasingly global environment for new trade and investment, and climate change has impacted heavily in parts of the region.

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These fundamental questions demand policy answers. And our universities and researchers with their local and global links are ready and willing to play a big role in making this happen.

Dr Peter O’Brien is executive director of Yorkshire Universities. PIC: Joanne CrawfordDr Peter O’Brien is executive director of Yorkshire Universities. PIC: Joanne Crawford
Dr Peter O’Brien is executive director of Yorkshire Universities. PIC: Joanne Crawford

There’s no better example of this than the trailblazing new research project in Yorkshire, which has just been awarded £5m in UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) funding and will be managed by the University of Leeds. It will be delivered by the Yorkshire and Humber Policy Innovation Partnership (Y-PIP) - which comprises Yorkshire Universities’ members, plus local and mayoral combined authority representatives, the Yorkshire and Humber Policy Engagement and Research Network (Y-PERN), the Yorkshire and Humber Climate Commission (YHCC), Yorkshire and Humber Applied Research Collaboration, and crucially local community groups.

The region’s academics will work directly in the field with community groups and policymakers on a series of research areas across Yorkshire - community-focused initiatives ranging from a new data portal giving the public vital information to a major climate change study.

This united front is testimony to the successful collaboration that drives Yorkshire Universities. Significantly, Yorkshire is the only region in England awarded such UKRI funding.

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Y-PIP builds on an existing infrastructure – the Yorkshire and Humber Policy Engagement and Research Network, or Y-PERN – which secured funding from another part of UKRI – Research England – in 2022.

Both projects stem from Yorkshire Universities’ ground-breaking Memorandum of Understanding with Yorkshire and Humber Council to work together and make effective use of research, data and evidence on issues including economic growth, health and well-being, sustainability and climate change.

Our graduates benefit from world-leading education, and in many cases go onto high-skilled jobs here in Yorkshire.

But our universities also have a critical role outside of the lecture theatre - academic researchers must provide valuable evidence and insights and opinion to help policymakers. In partnership with local communities, researchers can also help give communities more agency, and a stronger voice, in the decision-making and governance process.

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Universities are charities in receipt of public funding, and there is a responsibility to use the knowledge and research they create for wider economic, societal and environmental benefit.

Forming closer relationships between researchers and those outside the higher education sector is an essential ingredient in demonstrating the civic contribution of universities.

Such partnerships take time and patience.

Dr Peter O’Brien is executive director of Yorkshire Universities.

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