Koen Lamberts: How our universities will fuel the Northern Powerhouse

Eight leading universities, including Leeds, are integral to the Northern Powerhouse.
Eight leading universities, including Leeds, are integral to the Northern Powerhouse.
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But the Government must first create the conditions to further help them flourish.

THE N8 Research Partnership – the collaboration body of the North of England’s eight research-intensive universities, including three in Yorkshire – has just published a major report that shows how important these universities are as major economic enterprises for the Northern Powerhouse.

The report shows that the N8 universities – in Leeds, Sheffield, York, Durham, Lancaster, Liverpool, Manchester and Newcastle – deliver more than £12bn of revenue for the North, provide help to more than 31,000 businesses, and create over £6.6bn Gross Value Added (GVA) for the region. This is a larger contribution to Northern Powerhouse GVA than the entire Northern media industry, agriculture, or motor vehicle manufacturing sectors.

In short, the universities are working to create a new, more resilient Northern economy.

The N8 report demonstrates that these major universities are also responsible for 119,000 jobs in the North, inside the universities and across multiple other industries – equivalent to all the jobs within a city the size of Salford.

The new data, in The Power of 8, Knowledge, Innovation and Growth for the North, paints a compelling and comprehensive picture of university-business interaction and innovation support. We hope it will help to galvanise local and national government to invest further in the new possibilities of the North.

Economic challenges, as well as emerging opportunities, are evident across the North. The region is currently shaped by stark differences in prosperity, skills and productivity across our towns and cities. Jobs in declining industries need to be replaced to deliver new and better opportunities. To make this a reality, encouraging rhetoric from government needs to be replaced by strategic and substantive investment. Yorkshire’s, and the North’s, economy needs better digital and transport infrastructure, targeted funding for innovation and support for start-up and scale-up businesses, and a strategic vision for economic transformation.

I firmly believe that N8 universities have a key role to play in this. I see great examples of our academics and our students helping to establish new businesses, and innovating to grow existing businesses, while our universities are developing world class research hubs that support key industrial sectors, and training the next generation of business entrepreneurs and leaders. The N8 Research Partnership is committed to building relationships and collaborating across sectors and between institutions, because we believe that the role of universities includes delivering deep, transformational impact on the society around us.

There are opportunities to go even further. As at least parts of the North agree their devolution deals with government, and the region’s core cities are starting to work more closely together, the North could form a coherent voice for seeking national research and innovation-targeted investment.

The Prime Minister recently reiterated her Government’s commitment to the Northern Powerhouse project in an article for this newspaper. This project needs to create both productivity and prosperity, and to do this it needs much greater investment in innovation-led growth opportunities.

However our report calls for several key actions. Firstly, we recommend a new Northern strategy for innovation be developed, which would make regional collaborations easier and would be backed up by region-wide funding – aligned to the sites and opportunities of greatest benefit.

We also want to see streamlined processes and greater funding for helping small and medium-sized businesses collaborate more closely with universities. Thirdly, we seek major government investment in Northern research hubs, which would catalyse further business research collaborations of the type already emerging for example in N8’s AgriFood Resilience programme.

We also recognise the need for a highly skilled workforce, more able to set up successful new businesses, so we strongly advocate the need for the cities and regions to work closely with us on attracting talent into the region, and on investing in the North’s enterprise and entrepreneurship skills base.

Finally, we are looking to the Government to ensure we can retain close working relationships across the European Union and the globe.

Our report quantifies, for the first time, the scale of the importance of the European Union for Northern research funding. The eight member universities attract £1.26bn of research funding each year – £127m of that comes from European Union sources. This funding underpins many large and small-scale international collaborations – which are essential if we are to attract the brightest talent into the North.

Research-intensive N8 universities are key to the North’s economy. We look forward to working with LEPs, cities and the Government at the centre of what could emerge as a new region-wide innovation approach to ensuring new and better jobs.

Professor Koen Lamberts is Chair of the N8 Research Partnership and Vice-Chancellor of the University of York.