Mobilising the Power of Universities in Levelling Up: Scoping a UK Policy Forum

This project aims to create a Universities & Regions Policy Forum that brings together researchers with policymakers and practitioners in order to understand Levelling Up and respond to the challenges it presents.

The regional and local inequalities in social, economic and place-based success that underly the levelling-up agenda are deep-seated and complex and have persisted and even worsened despite numerous policy initiatives over many years. The Levelling Up White Paper (LUWP) recognises these complexities and acknowledges the failings of past interventions. One important engine for effective levelling up responses, largely neglected in the White Paper, is more active collaboration between universities and civic partners to understand and then address key economic development and community needs in their localities. 

There is a powerful body of social science research on the contribution of universities to city and regional development. But much of the research in this area has not hitherto informed policy and practice, particularly in the UK. This is in part because of silos within central government between those focusing on higher education and  research and innovation and those responsible for ‘place’. Parallel silos of disconnected roles and interests can be seen at the  local level - within universities and between local government and universities. As a consequence, there has been a generic failure to apply the weight of this academic knowledge and research to regeneration policies and practices in the places where universities are located.


Research Theme
Levelling Up

Research England Quality Research Funding  


Meeting the needs of lagging places requires linking up all four of the pillars identified in the White Paper. The generic performance management and mission-based approach to levelling up raises the question as how the resources universities already receive from different departments of state could be better deployed and signal a significant shift in their role in place-based levelling up.

This project aims to create a standing Universities & Regions Policy Forum that brings together academic researchers with policymakers and practitioners from inside and outside higher education (HE) in order to enhance their understanding of levelling up challenges and build more effective shared responses to them. The plan is to have two strands of activity. The first will involve key decision-makers from across Whitehall, local government, business and the community sectors along with researchers and HE, meeting under Chatham House conventions, to share experiences and challenges of mobilising universities to meet place-based levelling up needs. The second will be an open strand in which City-REDI will share research findings relevant to the UK, including insights arising from the WMREDI programme. Each meeting will be co-hosted by a senior City-REDI staff member or associate and a prominent policy-maker appropriate to the topic.

The Forum will aim to explore three core issues for realising the ambitions set out of the levelling up White Paper:

  • The politics of devolving, distributing and aligning the funding and resources available for place-based levelling up interventions, recognising that there is little new money on offer or in prospect 

  • The balkanisation of the education and skills environment, between universities and even more so between schools, colleges and other providers, and the need for greater integration across this fragmented landscape 

  • The need for shared performance and accountability frameworks focused on the impacts of university/civic collaborations on the diversity of mission-related outcomes sought through the levelling up agenda 

Research Team

John Goddard, Professor of University and Cities, City-REDI / WMREDI, University of Birmingham.  Formerly DVC Newcastle University and Vice Chair of the Civic University Commission.

Anne Green, Professor of Regional Economic Development, City-REDI / WMREDI, University of Birmingham. 

Rebecca Riley, Administrative Director, City-REDI / WMREDI, University of Birmingham. 

Chris Millward, Professor of Practice in Education Policy, formerly Director for Fair Access and Participation at the Office for Students and Director of Policy at the Higher Education Funding Council for England. 

Des McNulty, Honorary Fellow in Civic Partnership and Place Leadership at the University of Glasgow, having developed as Assistant Vice Principal the university’s civic strategy and its engagement with the city region economic strategy and Glasgow’s social recovery taskforce. Before returning to academia in 2012, he held senior posts in the Scottish Government, the Scottish Parliament and local government. 

Mike Boxall, consultant on strategy and policy development to universities and government agencies, and is a senior adviser on higher and further education to PA Consulting.


Project lead contact details: 

Professor John Goddard, Professor of University and Cities, City-REDI / WMREDI

Project support contact details: 

Ben Brittain, Policy and Data Analyst, City-REDI / WMREDI 

Publications and Reports

Universities and Region Forum: Universities, Pride in Place and Levelling Up
Rebecca Riley and Des McNulty – May 2023

How can Universities, Colleges and Employers Deliver the Skills for Local Productivity, Innovation and Prosperity?
Anne Green, Chris Millward and Abigail Taylor – December 2022

Universities and Regions Forum: What role do Universities have in Levelling Up?
Briefing paper by Des McNulty (On behalf of Mike Boxall, John Goddard, Anne Green, Chris Millward and Rebecca Riley) – August 2022

Truly Civic: Strengthening the connection between universities and their places
UUP Foundation, 2019

The Civic University: The Policy and  Leadership Challenges
Edited by John Goddard, 2016

The University and the City
John Goddard and Paul Vallance, 2013

WMREDI is funded by Research England and the WMREDI partnership

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