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13 September 2021updated 23 Sep 2021 11:03am

Universities have a role far beyond education

Northern academic institutions will play a key part in helping their regions emerge from the pandemic stronger and more sustainable

By Chris Day

As the vice chancellor of a university in the north of England, an area disproportionately impacted by Covid-19, I have seen at first hand the crucial civic role of universities and what can be achieved through strong collaboration between ourselves and our regional partners.

One of the reasons why we were able to respond so quickly to the pandemic was not just because of our commitment to help but because all of us already have long-standing local and national partnerships. Now, as we start to move out of the crisis and plan our recovery, universities will be crucial if their cities and regions are to emerge from the pandemic fairer, stronger and more sustainable than before.

UK universities have a world-leading reputation for supporting students to become successful work-ready graduates. At Newcastle alone over the past 18 months we have graduated more than 600 medical students who have been supporting the NHS frontline Covid response, many of them in our region’s hospitals.

But our role goes beyond our traditional undergraduate and postgraduate programmes. PostCovid, demand for higher-level skills is projected to continue rising and our northern universities have responded to this with training and upskilling programmes tailored to employers, the local community and broader economy.

Earlier this year, Universities UK, together with the National Centre for Entrepreneurship in Education (NCEE), produced a new report that predicted that over the next five years northern universities would be involved in regional regeneration projects with partners worth almost £400m and support the formation of 4,267 new businesses and charities. Over the same period, those same institutions will provide over £500m of support and services to small enterprises, businesses and not-for-profit organisations.

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The N8 Research Partnership – the strategic collaboration of the eight research-intensive universities in the north of England (Durham, Lancaster, Leeds, Liverpool, Manchester, Newcastle, Sheffield and York) – is living proof of what we can achieve when we focus our collective effort on tackling some of the biggest challenges facing society today.

While stringent restrictions have impacted on universities, their staff and their students in so many difficult ways, I’m proud that these limitations did not hinder our ability to collaborate or innovate.

Throughout the pandemic, our eight universities have been hard at work developing Net Zero North (NzN), an initiative that will drive a green recovery that connects the Northern Powerhouse’s science and research capabilities and skills providers to unlock new business opportunities and create and secure much-needed new employment opportunities and pathways to long-term careers.

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Three parallel, pan-northern projects within NzN (Grow Smarter, Sustainable Hydrogen Economy, and Skills and Productivity) will accelerate economic growth by creating new job opportunities, promoting upskilling of the northern workforce and supporting firms to innovate and adopt low-carbon business models.

These will in turn create a sustainable and resource-efficient society – particularly in economically challenging towns, cities and rural and coastal locations – to help with the establishment of skills hubs in Teesside (Sustainable Hydrogen Economy) and Eden Project North (Grow Smarter), among numerous other projects.

NzN aligns closely with the government’s dual aims of levelling up and creating a high-skilled green economy to enable us to “Build Back Better” from the pandemic. The project has been praised in the House of Commons, yet funding has so far not been forthcoming.

That’s why last month’s Hydrogen Strategy was a welcome, positive milestone in the government’s response to the climate crisis, providing confirmation it is willing to take the steps required to develop a low-carbon hydrogen economy that will create thousands of green jobs.

While it may not necessarily seem so initially, the next important announcement in the government’s response to the reports that have confronted us with the reality of climate catastrophe this year – from the Dasgupta Review to the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel Report on Climate Change – is the Levelling Up White Paper in the autumn.

Put simply, the north of England – its universities working with cities, towns, coastal and rural communities, combining natural resources and industrial strengths – is the government’s best bet to forge an ambitious climate-conscious recovery from Covid-19. I sincerely hope this White Paper – and the coming spending review – recognises this and continues what the Hydrogen Strategy has begun.

That can be done by backing the green recovery programmes – such as NzN – that will enable the UK to level up while simultaneously creating a sustainable model of economic growth that also supports the health and well-being of the whole of the UK for many generations to come.

What is clear is that our universities are ready – through innovation, training and knowledge exchange – to help drive productivity and boost competitiveness. By producing skilled graduates and delivering local regeneration projects, universities will work to level up the UK and improve lives.

Covid-19 has hit communities hard and without commitment or funding from UK government and businesses, the north of England will struggle to take advantage of the social reset triggered by the pandemic.

That’s why northern universities have put so much time and effort into developing a programme that will ensure this does not happen.

Instead, as we look to rebuild the economy and address long-standing structural issues facing our society while seeking to mitigate the worst effects of climate change, we look forward to working with the government and our partners in the private sector, and to cementing the northern economy as a leader in the charge towards a zerocarbon future, resulting in a fairer, more sustainable society for all.

Chris Day is vice chancellor of Newcastle University. This article originally appeared in our issue on Regional Development: Access to Opportunity. Download the full issue here.