HE-led regional growth ‘needs shared culture and Boston model’

UK universities must think as one with civic leaders and businesses to boost regions as Boston peers have, says influential peer Lord O’Neill

January 25, 2023

Civic leaders and universities in the UK regions need to show far greater “shared culture and ambition” to succeed and win funding, while the United States’ Boston area shows how UK universities could lead regional economic transformation, according to Lord O’Neill.

The influential peer, a former Goldman Sachs chief economist, is vice-chair of the Northern Powerhouse Partnership and chair of Northern Gritstone, the investment company created by the universities of Leeds, Sheffield and Manchester.

The local authorities that are “most effective” tend to be the ones where it is “pretty hard to tell the difference” between “who are the local authorities, who are the LEP [Local Enterprise Partnership] and who are the universities”, Lord O’Neill told a Westminster Higher Education Forum event on the role of universities in their local economies.

In his home city of Manchester, “you can’t tell who’s who, because they are all singing from the same hymn sheet” and there is a “shared…culture and ambition”, he added, speaking in a session on attracting investment and driving growth in local economies.

“Unfortunately, there are many other parts of England where I have met with people in the local civic leadership where that’s simply not the case.”

“Unless you can get private business, universities and the local authority to be thinking along similar lines then it’s going to be pretty difficult,” he went on.

That collaboration is “also something that’s monitored by central government”, as central government is unlikely to award funding “if they don’t think it’s going to be used better [locally than] if it’s spent from Whitehall”, said Lord O’Neill.

On wider policy goals to support growth in UK regions, the peer noted the call by Greater Manchester to follow the example of Germany and its federal system in achieving true “levelling up”.

But Boston and the north-east of the US, “especially as it relates to universities is an equally [useful] if not better example, given our strength in universities”, said Lord O’Neill.

A few decades ago New England was seen as an “old declining industrial power”, but the “staggering role” of Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology has turned Greater Boston “into the health tech sector of the world and one of the United States’ most prosperous areas”, he continued.

That was “a really specific example of the art of the achievable if we’re going to have people in these places [UK regions] achieve things that the last 50, 60 years haven’t been able to do”, he added.


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