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As we emerge from a year of crisis, now is the time for the UK to double down on our competitive advantage in education and research as a means of levelling up at home, while leading the world in home grown skills and innovation.

The 24 globally outstanding Russell Group universities are based in every region and nation of the country, delivering high-value education and graduates, groundbreaking research, and thousands of quality local jobs. This unique combination makes them a crucial component in unlocking potential across Britain.

Our national response to the pandemic has been backed by the firepower of the UK’s world-leading research universities to develop new, innovative treatments to aid recovery and vaccines to combat the pandemic. Russell Group universities have been at the forefront of the fight against Covid-19. Now they stand ready to turn that firepower towards supporting a recovery that spreads to all communities. 

Investing in place-based economic growth, in fundamental research, in key strategic science-based missions, and in the talent pipeline for future high-level skills will create more jobs, help realise the levelling up ambition, and boost our knowledge economy as we work to overcome the scars left by Covid-19 and the existing inequalities exacerbated by the crisis. 

Russell Group universities support over 260,000 full-time equivalent jobs – more than the entire population of cities like Aberdeen or Plymouth. More than 200,000 of these jobs, supported through direct employment and the expenditure of universities, staff and international students, were based in towns and cities outside of London.

The overall economic impact of spending by the 24 universities in 2015-16, together with the spending of their staff, their suppliers, and their international students in the wider economy, was £27.2 billion, with £21.3 billion of this impact boosting communities outside of London.

As we look to the recovery, these hubs of employment are ideal launchpads for regional economic renewal: driving innovation nationally while delivering jobs, education, employment, and cultural bases in their surrounding areas. The opportunity of new trade deals also has the potential to link the international with the local – driving inward investment, student mobility, and trade with new markets.

Closing the productivity gaps between London and regions such as the North East, Midlands, Wales, and Northern Ireland will be crucial to delivering an economic recovery that works for communities right across the UK and secures long term growth and wage increases. 

Doing this requires a genuine levelling up: building on the best and getting all areas up to that same level, not undermining our existing strengths. The ambition must be to achieve global competitiveness in every region and nation of the UK.

The 2020 Spending Review showed how tough the decisions are for the Government, so it was telling that the Chancellor earmarked further funding for research, knowing, as we do, the pay-off for such investment. Our economic impact report shows for every £1 of publicly funded research income, Russell Group universities deliver an average return of £9 to the UK economy. 

Creating a workforce to support an economic recovery and longer term success will require big increases in the number of people with the kind of high-level skills a quality university education provides. In the UK, Russell Group universities already teach a quarter of all undergraduates and a third of all postgraduates, including four out of five doctors. The number of disadvantaged and under-represented students going to university is rising but our 2020 report, Pathways for Potential, sets out an ambitious plan to ensure that the only factor affecting whether or not someone goes to university is their drive and determination to do so.

There are also other routes to success beyond traditional higher education. Over half of our members offer degree apprenticeships, and, as employers, all offer apprenticeship schemes. Our members collaborate locally with further education colleges and we have long said that Britain must be ambitious for both higher education and further education. 

The Russell Group shares the assessment of the Prime Minister that “talent, skill and genius are distributed uniformly across the UK, but opportunity is not”. There is a moral case for levelling up but also a hard-headed economic one that makes the most of untapped potential in people and communities.

Our universities are already key regional hubs so the existing processes, research infrastructure, and local links they support are an efficient way to level up without starting from scratch. We recommend two immediate steps that could be taken to support levelling up:

First, boost capital investment to ensure shovel-ready projects that have been paused due to the pandemic can restart as soon as it is safe to do so. As part of their efforts to protect education and jobs from the economic challenges created by Covid-19, Russell Group universities have had to put over £2 billion of projects on hold, which could potentially support around 28,000 jobs. 

Second, channel a portion of the additional R&D investment into a major scale-up of schemes with a proven track record of fostering university-business partnerships and extending local innovation capacity and training. These include the Higher Education Innovation Fund, Strength in Places Fund, Knowledge Transfer Partnerships, and the Connecting Capability Fund.

As we prepare to move beyond Covid-19 and embrace the possibilities of a post-Brexit Britain, a high-skilled, high-tech approach to levelling up can unleash our potential at home and abroad. Russell Group universities are ready to play their part in making the most of the opportunities ahead and working to ensure they are evenly spread across our country. 

Dr Tim Bradshaw is the Chief Executive of the Russell Group. This article first appeared in our Centre Write magazine The Great Levelling?. Views expressed in this article are those of the author, not necessarily those of Bright Blue. [Image: Arian Kriesch]