An image of the University Library and crests against a clear blue sky.

Universities have a major role to play in shaping the lives of people within a city or town - building capability, capacity and steering local agendas - whilst holding central government accountable to ‘levelling-up’ more disadvantaged parts of the country, a new study reveals.

New research from the West Midlands Regional Economic Development Institute (WMREDI), at the University of Birmingham, explores the role universities could play in contributing to one of the UK Government’s key levelling-up objectives, Pride in Place.

Led by Associate Professor Rebecca Riley, Principal Investigator for the Local Policy Innovation Partnership Hub (LPIP) and Des McNulty, Vice Chair of the Universities Policy Engagement Network, Chair of the LPIP Advisory Board and Vice Chair of The Glasgow Commission for Economic Growth, the research looks at how people feel about the places they live and work - and how universities can play a role in contributing to and building on this.

Universities are significant organisations within a city or town. Using their individual strengths and looking at roles they can play as anchor institutions is vital in building capability and capacity within a place.

Rebecca Riley, University of Birmingham

Rebecca Riley, Associate Professor for Enterprise, Engagement and Impact at City-REDI said: “Universities are significant organisations within a city or town. Using their individual strengths and looking at roles they can play as anchor institutions is vital in building capability and capacity within a place. Their expertise can help steer local agendas and is important in holding central government accountable when delivering levelling-up activity.

“If we want long-term collaboration between universities and civic partners, we need to think hard about what sorts of measures are needed to properly sustain it.”

Empowering people to shape where they live is a key priority. This should involve not only restoring and regenerating their town centres and high streets, but also engaging residents in discussions about future investment that reflects their felt experiences and aspirations. The research also explores the commitment of current and future governments to Levelling Up, and which roles universities should play in networking and partnership activities.

Nine recommendations for successful implementation are set out in the report.

Recommendations from the report.

  • Creating a programme to build capacity for local authorities and civic partners.
  • Replacing short-term and piecemeal investments with longer-term funding streams.
  • Stronger links to strategic infrastructure and economic development plans.
  • Strands of levelling up activity should be brought together rather than treated as separate.
  • Local society should be consulted to deal with threats to place viability.
  • Opportunities for citizens to engage with cultural assets should be made available.
  • Efforts should be made to build back community networks and social fabric after the covid-19 lockdowns.
  • Labour market shortages in key sectors can be regenerated by building new amenities and physical capacity for large events or local cultural assets.
  • Investment is needed in skills expertise and knowledge to create adaptive place strategies.

The analysis and recommendations in this briefing come from a workshop held in February 2023 by the Universities and Regions Forum at the University of Birmingham. Forum members are knowledge leaders from a variety of academic disciplines and governmental and practitioner organisations with experience and expertise in place-related economic development, community empowerment and cultural engagement activities.

The recommendations in the paper clarify what is needed to take forward the delivery of levelling-up commitments, building on previous City-REDI and WMREDI research, as well as participants’ insights from working for and providing advice to local and central government in England and the national governments in Wales and Scotland.

Rebecca concluded: “Universities are uniquely placed to facilitate, engage, and evaluate the levelling-up agenda and related activity. Institutions often inspire pride in the places they are based and often have the reputation and resources to assist local communities in engaging with developments in their hometowns and cities. If local and national government are to take the promises of levelling-up seriously and deliver on them, then they need to explore the role these institutions can play.”