Collaboration is the key to being competitive

What’s going on in the North? That’s a question I am asked quite often when I travel outside the region, especially when I am in London (where I go quite often, as Vice-Chancellor of York).

I usually suppress the urge to point out first that York is less than two hours from King’s Cross, so it’s not quite Irkutsk or Vladivostok, but apart from that, the answer to the question is quite simple – the North is on the march and our universities are leading the way. There has been much talk about the Northern Powerhouse recently, and I believe that real, positive change is underway in the North, and that universities are driving much of that change.

About 10 years ago, the eight most research-intensive universities in the north of England – Durham, Lancaster, Leeds, Liverpool, Manchester, Newcastle, Sheffield and York – decided to form a research partnership called the N8.The partnership has gone from strength to strength, and I can confidently say that the N8 is now widely recognised as a model for sustainable, high-value university collaboration. What makes the N8 stand out is that it brings together eight highly successful universities that normally compete fiercely for the best students, the largest research grants and the best academics and researchers. But by focusing the N8 activities on translating fundamental research into knowledge exchange and commercial partnerships, we have been able to identify areas where we all gain by collaborating with each other, instead of competing.

And where universities stand to gain, the region in which they are embedded benefits too. Together, we have a significant economic presence in the North. The N8 universities are worth £12.2billion to the northern economy, and they deliver 119,000 full-time equivalent jobs – that’s as many as all the jobs in a city the size of Salford or Southampton. We add twice as much value to the economy as the entire Premier League does. We add more to the economy of the north of England than the entire northern media industry, agriculture, or automotive sectors. We provide consultancy services to more than 17,000 small and medium-sized businesses. N8 universities really do bring the collective vision and power that allows them to play a significant economic role in the North, by driving innovation-led growth, underpinning inward investment, and fostering a talent pool of outstanding graduates.

The government has recognised the main challenges and opportunities that exist within the region and further afield, and many of these challenges are being addressed through collaborative research in the N8 universities. For example, the N8 Policing Research Partnership is a five-year programme of research and knowledge exchange through collaboration between all the police forces across the north of England and the N8 universities. The programme will enable the partnership to take a major step forward in developing and testing innovative approaches to policing and crime reduction. Improving our cities and the way we live and work in them is the focus of national Urban Living pilots led by N8 universities (York, Leeds and Newcastle). These pilots will bring together citizens, university researchers, local authorities and businesses in multidisciplinary initiatives, aimed at rewriting the blueprint for the evolution of our city living.

N8 locations

The N8 universities are leaders in eight of the 13 Networks in Industrial Biotechnology and Bioenergy, formed to foster collaboration between academia, industry, policy-makers and NGOs. At York, we are leading the N8’s AgriFood Resilience project, working on one of the biggest global challenges we face – how to ensure that the planet can provide sustainable, resilient and healthy food supplies for all. Through these (and many other) collective initiatives, the N8 universities instil a spirit of innovation into the region, and that spirit will be crucial in lifting the regional economy.

Another way in which we contribute to the region (and the nation) is through the soft power of our alumni. York alone has 116,000 alumni working in every conceivable profession around the world. Their collective advocacy is invaluable at a time when Britain seeks to forge partnerships and trade agreements beyond the EU. Every student who comes to study in the North has the potential to become an ambassador for the region, and many of them do. Our universities attract outstanding talent from all over the world to the North.

I often hear that northern universities should do more to encourage their graduates to stay in the region and contribute to its economic and cultural development. I have never found this argument convincing, particularly for a university like York (or the other N8 universities, for that matter). World-class research universities do not exist primarily to create a local or regional skills base; instead, we produce graduates who compete with the best, for the best jobs anywhere in the world. We want our graduates to succeed, and that means that we should encourage them to go where the opportunities are greatest. If we want to create the highly skilled, highly productive workforce that the northern economy needs, it is imperative that we create an economic environment that attracts the best graduates to the North, regardless of where in the world they come from or where they went to university.

To make that happen, we have to offer them the best opportunities for success, by embracing innovation of every kind, and allowing new, promising sectors of the economy to flourish. Universities, working in partnership with each other and with business and industry, will continue to contribute to that innovation; in fact, it is our primary role in making the Northern Powerhouse a reality, and it’s a role we relish.

This article was originally published the New Statesman.