The UK’s some 140 universities are engines of employment and research. Universities UK, this country’s higher education trade body, estimated that in 2011/12 they generated more than £73bn a year in output for the overall economy, contributing nearly 3 per cent of GDP in that period.
In January, at the opening of Durham University’s new Teaching and Learning Centre, the then science minister Chris Skidmore spoke effusively about how higher education can catalyse regional growth in “every corner” of the UK.
The idea of “north versus south” must become a thing of the past, he said. Skidmore said universities are essential to the government’s levelling up agenda, as he outlined its commitment to doubling investment in the UK’s research and development (R&D) funding to £18bn by 2024-25.
Universities provide employees across various industries, create their own jobs, and help sustain local businesses. According to Universities UK, for every 100 full-time jobs within universities themselves, on average another 117 full-time equivalent jobs are created through knock-on effects.
Universities are not only essential in training the next generation of workers, says David Sweeney, executive chair of Research England, but also as “centres of innovation” and “valuable partners” to private businesses looking to increase their productivity. In his speech in January, Skidmore also made reference to “knowledge networks” that could encourage experts and business leaders to “flock” to areas with a particular talent pool or expertise.
Read more: Why city centres can survive Covid-19?
So, can a new university in Peterborough – which a recent Centre for Cities study declared was the fifth-most “at-risk” UK city from the economic impact of the coronavirus pandemic – help revitalise the local economy?
Initially run as an extension of Anglia Ruskin University, which has multiple campuses across the south-east, ARU Peterborough is due to open in the autumn of 2022. ARU Peterborough will be built mainly on the city’s North Embankment by the River Nene. It aims to gain degree-awarding powers in its own right by 2030, but its focus will be on practical skills and training.
The project, which is expected to cost around £30m, is a joint venture between the city council, Anglia Ruskin University, and the Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Combined Authority (CPCA), which was formed in 2017.
ARU Peterborough will launch with four faculties, covering business and entrepreneurship, creative and digital arts, agriculture and environment studies, and healthcare education. The courses, designed in collaboration with local employers, are a mix of traditional classroom teaching, remote and practical learning. Many will involve work placements or internships.
The Conservative mayor of CPCA, James Palmer, first raised the idea of a university when he was elected in 2017. Shortly after the CPCA was established, an independent economic review identified the north of the region as having greater rates of social deprivation and child poverty, as well as poorer rates of social mobility.
While nearby Cambridge and Norwich have established universities – the University of Cambridge and the University of East Anglia respectively – Palmer told Spotlight in an email that Peterborough was a comparative “cold spot” for higher education, and risked being “left behind” without serious investment and direction.
Palmer says that addressing “education deprivation” – Peterborough is in the bottom 10 per cent of all UK cities in terms of its number of qualified adults – was one of the principal reasons for the ARU Peterborough project. According to the Centre for Cities study, Peterborough’s economy is at risk because of its “low-tech industrial base”.
Although the city has relatively high employment levels, its skills growth has not kept pace. Local businesses, the study suggested, are struggling to hire the staff they need for more senior positions. Meanwhile, new companies that could offer high-value jobs are being discouraged from investing in the area.
Palmer says the goal is to create an “ecosystem” to generate high-skilled workers in the city in order to become more economically competitive. The focus is on degree-level apprenticeships, rather than R&D.
Read more: Why online learning is key to social mobility
Covid-19 underscores the importance of ARU Peterborough, rather than offering a reason to delay it or scale it back, he says. The need for better growth in Peterborough has “only become more pressing” because of the pandemic.
But ARU Peterborough should not be understood as a new university in the traditional sense, notes Professor Roderick Watkins, the vice-chancellor of Anglia Ruskin University. Rather than becoming a “destination campus” for students from across the UK, ARU Peterborough’s priority is to attract and train local students, he says.
Watkins is hopeful that by 2022 “things will be different” in terms of the impact that Covid-19 is having on higher education. But ARU Peterborough will make sure that learning remains flexible.
“Obviously, we have to take social distancing into account. We will have a mix of online and classroom learning. We will retain the option of having online-only courses for some students,” says Watkins. The university is projected to have around 2,000 students in its first cohort in 2022. Applications are due to open in August 2021.
Anglia Ruskin University is already an established provider of degree-level apprenticeships. Watkins says ARU Peterborough will look to offer “full, three-year programmes with work placements”, as well as shorter “bite-size” and “outreach” qualifications, including training in management or digital skills.
Tuition fees at ARU Peterborough will vary. Most courses can be covered using the apprenticeship levy – a 0.5 per cent tax on UK employers with an annual wage bill exceeding £3m.
“Importantly,” Watkins says, “degree apprentices won’t have to take out a student loan [at least for their tuition fees].” Exact pricing is yet to be agreed on different courses, but the full three-year programmes will “definitely be lower” than the current £9,250 a year that most universities charge for degrees. Watkins says that ARU Peterborough wants to be viewed as a viable option for people from “every kind” of socio-economic background.
Post-pandemic, with fewer people able or willing to commute for work, and a growing emphasis on a more equitable economy, a new city hub for training and education should be a positive step. As Sweeney says, the impact of universities can be felt “locally, nationally and internationally”.
This article originally appeared in the Spotlight report on regional development. Click here for the full edition.