Research Blog: English universities have a central role to play in the devolution agenda

Katy Shaw
This blog post was initially published in the Times Higher Education blog, 6 December 2023.

Civic mission demands close collaboration with combined authorities to ensure graduates, research and relationships are fit for purpose, says Katy Shaw.

The past decade has witnessed what the government terms an English “devolution revolution”. By May next year, more than half of England will be governed by democratically elected mayors, heading combined local authorities.

This is important because it is much easier to connect partners and mobilise unlikely allies around common causes at a local level than at a national one, insulated from the vicissitudes of national politics. And universities are crucial to that process from the very outset.

They can and do help to shape key strategic priorities and share expertise and infrastructure as their local authorities develop and bid for devolution. Further down the line, they can engage with so called “deeper devolution” agreements by providing evidence, networks and capacity to help their combined authorities evolve and take on new powers and budgets.

At an operational level, higher education institutions can help to enhance accountability. For instance, they can support the establishment of a new bureaucracy from scratch through sharing their own services and staff. They can help communicate a single shared strategy for selling place – whether to prospective investors or to prospective students – in a way that is consistent and evidence-based. And they can help combined authorities think about how to tackle wicked problems and respond to opportunities collaboratively.

Devolution can also bring the people and organisations of a place closer to their universities. In doing so, it can facilitate collaboration and unlock innovation, creating better-informed decision making and spending by connecting policy people to the lived experience of communities and the expertise of their universities.

Innovation drives growth: if devolution harnesses the innovation superpower of our universities then, by working together, combined authorities and higher education institutions can achieve inclusive growth for our regions and communities.

Inclusive place-making is particularly important where I am, in the north-east of England. We already have one of the youngest combined authorities, the North of Tyne, which currently covers everything from Newcastle up to the Scottish border. But in May next year we will get “double devolution” and become the new North East Combined Mayoral Authority. Uniting eight councils will create the biggest devolved geographical area in England, adding Sunderland and Durham to North of Tyne.

That area’s four universities – Northumbria, Newcastle, Sunderland and Durham – will have a unique role to play in delivering deeper devolution and in informing place-powered policy-making. In recognition of this, we are coming together to help create a decentralisation of power that is driven by innovation. In dialogue with the combined authority and with industry, we are co-designing academic portfolios to ensure our students and communities have the skills to access vital growth areas.

We are also developing innovative cultural partnerships with local and national arts organisations – such as the Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art and the British Film Institute (BFI) – to enhance the resilience and sustainability of our culture and connect it to the latest R&D and student experience so that everyone has access to creativity.

We are also capitalising on university capacity and expertise to ensure that decentralisation is informed by, and can inform, innovation at every stage. Examples include Collaborative Newcastle – a health partnership between our universities, NHS trusts and combined authority – university policy hubs, such as Insights NE and Intune, the creation of shared posts and secondments with the combined authority, or having academics like me sitting on combined authority strategic advisory boards.

This is just the first chapter. Even the most mature mayoral authorities are only seven years old, so this is early-stage change-making. That is why it is also such an exciting space, one in which universities can create meaningful impact. 

Universities’ civic function in devolution is about sowing the seeds of a future society that is co-developed as a series of civic agreement settlements, aligned university strategies and purposeful joint investment in new infrastructure and experiences that make our places attractive areas to live and work.

Keynes famously said the economy works on the basis of animal spirits. The devolution university challenge is to create thriving places that are empowered to tell their own stories and develop their own imaginations about who they want to be. Higher education institutions are uniquely placed to facilitate conversations with their communities about what good looks like and to help build, reinforce and maintain confidence in their localities, integrating systems to tackle inequality and opening doors to new actors in innovation.

Civic mission is not a challenge be tackled in isolation. Universities must co-create with combined authorities to ensure that our graduates, research and cross-sector relationships are fit for purpose now and in the future.

By embedding themselves in decentralisation of our English regions, higher education institutions can enhance profile, drive partnership and add value through stepping up to reap both the responsibilities and the rewards that devolution affords.

Katy Shaw is programme director of the Arts and Humanities Research Council’s Creative Communities programme and director of university cultural partnerships at Northumbria University. She spoke at THE Campus Live #THECampusLive in Liverpool on 6 December.


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