March 23, 2022 10.05 am This story is over 20 months old

Neal Juster: A flagship for how levelling up works in practice

How the University of Lincoln is levelling up the local community

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By Vice Chancellor at the University of Lincoln

It has long been recognised that the type of jobs your parents have is a major determining factor on your lifetime income, quality of life, and life expectancy. It is also known that the level of education you achieve has the strongest impact on breaking these correlations.

It is not just the family into which you are born, but where you are brought up, that will determine your life chances. This is a complex set of interactions of employment opportunities, transport links, availability of good education, provision of health care, pride of place, and crime rates (amongst other things).

These factors can lead to inequalities emerging between different parts of the UK and there is growing focus among policymakers and the public on “levelling up”. This means examining the sometimes hidden structural forces that shape people’s opportunities, happiness and prosperity and, where possible, making changes that can tip the scales.

In February, the government published its much-anticipated White Paper – Levelling Up the United Kingdom, which proposes how regional inequalities can be addressed. It notes that regional disparities have existed for a very long time, but they have been exacerbated in recent years where major industries, that used to support a large workforce from the area, have collapsed. It is also recognised that disparities can often be larger within towns, cities, and regions rather than between them.

Six asset classes, or ‘capitals’, are listed in the paper, that should be used in harmony to enable levelling up: Physical – infrastructure and housing; Human – the skills and health of the workforce; Intangible – ideas and patents; Financial – supporting the financing of companies; Social – the strength of communities; and Institutional – local leadership, capacity and capability.

Where all these assets are strong there is a virtuous circle of growth as skilled people are attracted to good jobs, live in good housing and build strong communities, creating demand for good schools and transport links. Where these assets are weak, or missing, there is a spiral of decline; an inability to attract a talented workforce, low wages, lack of demand for amenities and services, rising crime rates, and a declining infrastructure.

The underlying issues are difficult, intertwined and not solved quickly, or by a single institution or Government department. The White Paper is strong on devolving decisions, meaning major public and private organisations within a region have a responsibility to put political difference and natural competitiveness aside and work together to unleash opportunity and prosperity.

Universities have played a leading role in improving social mobility and reducing inequality. So what can I do as a leader of a university and in particular as the Vice Chancellor of the University of Lincoln? Universities have been a force for good in many regions and Lincoln has been one of the finest examples of this over the past 25 years, and we are committed to continue making a difference.

Of the six capitals in the white paper, there are four where we can make leading contributions, namely: Human, Intangible, Social, and Institutional.

Human Capital

The University of Lincoln generates more than £400 million a year for the economy. One in six people residing in the city is either a student, an employee of the university, or has a job linked to it indirectly.

We strive to provide opportunities for local people that inspired the creation of our university. 97% of our new undergraduates come from state schools and colleges, and one in five is from a low participation neighbourhood. We see them go onto achieve incredible things as graduates working for major employers, and we support others to launch their own business through the university’s business incubator recently rated as in the top 10 nationwide for business creation.

Intangible Capital

Lincoln is proud to be home to world-class researchers whose work makes a profound contribution to society, industry, and the economy.

Not only are we addressing global challenges by producing, amongst other things, world-first medical imaging technologies, we are also using innovative methods to help restore some of Britain’s prized architectural treasures (Elizabeth Tower ‘Big Ben’ to name just one). But because we’ve grown alongside our community and industries, we’re focussed on fixing problems facing local people and businesses too. Lincolnshire is known as the ‘breadbasket’ of England because of its agricultural production. We now host the world’s first robotic farm, and our researchers were invited to exhibit our world-leading agri-tech innovations at COP26. Our Institute of Agri-Food Technology is cited in the white paper as an example of innovation and collaboration, specifically with the agriculture sector to develop technology which can solve challenges across the food chain.

In addition, our National Centre for Food Manufacturing serves the skills and needs of the UK’s single largest concentration of food companies, from family-owned firms to multi-national corporations. We also sponsor an academy trust of local schools and lead the Lincolnshire Institute of Technology, ensuring a steady pipeline of the skills at all levels for key industry sectors.

Social Capital

The university is a special story about how a region came together to make changes that improve opportunities and prosperity in areas that might otherwise have been left behind. It is a flagship in demonstrating how education can impact positively on a place, and the people in it. It’s not just the University of Lincoln, it’s the University for Lincoln. The people of Lincolnshire took the university to their hearts, it was theirs, they built it, and they kept it going.

As a university we are lucky to be in the heart of a beautiful city and as a result its community. We now have more than 100,000 graduates among our alumni community, working in different industries all over the globe, who remain powerful advocates of Lincoln and Lincolnshire around the world. These connections between people and places are invisible but important. Many of our graduates stay in Lincoln after falling in love with the city, or are indeed already local to it, with some launching successful businesses, creating new jobs. Retaining talented people within the region is vital to our prosperity.

Institutional Capital

The university is unrecognisable from how it looked 25 years ago but the principles to how we aspire to grow and do good remain the same: Responding to local needs, like skills shortages in our engineering firms or NHS, and working in genuine partnerships with employers and our communities.

We were a founder member of the Greater Lincolnshire Local Enterprise Partnership, which has helped steward strategic investment in our county. We boast regional and national industry partnerships with companies like Siemans Energy, the Co-operative, and Bloomberg to name a few. Our Science and Innovation Park co-locates students, researchers and high-tech businesses together. In all, it enables us to do incredibly important work, such as pursuing research in areas like green energy.

By power of will, we have opened libraries, theatres, sport centres and over the past decade a new academic building every year. New academic departments have resulted in an enviable range of STEM programmes and facilities, the pinnacle being the establishment of a new medical school. Our new £21 million medical school building is training future generations of doctors for our region’s hospitals.

Universities share the same motivation as many organisations: a desire to make people’s lives better. That comes in many forms; expanding opportunities for young people, like those from disadvantaged backgrounds, supporting industry to innovate through research and development, pushing economic growth and prosperity as ‘anchor institutions’, responding to the climate crisis, pursuing medical advances, enriching the arts, and preserving our heritage.

The above are all contributions, but they are just that. As a flagship for how the levelling up agenda works in practice, we will continue to contribute and work with our regional partners to ensure that virtuous circle of improvement.

Professor Neal Juster is Vice Chancellor of the University of Lincoln