In a government reshuffle in Britain in July 2014, newly appointed universities Minister and Cabinet Member Greg Clark assumed a role expanded from that of his predecessor David Willetts. Cities were added to his portfolio. The Times Higher Education leader for 24 July, Closing the “town-gown” gap, mentions a concern that this further signals ‘the reduction of universities into economic tools or “engines of growth”’. More positively, and more in line with the mission and purposes of PASCAL (see Learning Cities 2020), the Editor notes recognition of ‘the day-to-day focus of many UK universities, whose effort are often overshadowed by the attention-grabbing research elite’; and concludes that ‘cities might not be the most glamorous addition to the universities and science brief but… it should be a valuable one’.
The same issue of THE carries an article by the Conservative former Deputy Prime Minister Michael (Lord) Heseltine noting that universities already play a vital local and regional role: Clark’s appointment ‘indicates the government’s determination to empower Britain’s great cities and their economies’. Certainly for the ‘rest-of-England’ regions that watch resources and qualified people draining into the London-and-the-South-East corner - and who if of historical bent might recall William Cobbett’s scathing descriptions of the Great Wen and its financiers and dealers - the initiative should be welcome. Policy-watchers might be forgiven a little scepticism as they recall an early action by the same Administration: abolition of the Regional Development Agencies (RDAs), with competitive bidding for a modest part of the lost revenue by new local enterprise partnerships. If what Heseltine calls rebalancing our economy and rebuild our cities does ‘rebalance’ the huge advantage enjoyed by the London region (albeit trivial compared with the Korean rebalancing of Seoul and the rest of the Republic of Korea a decade ago) that must surely be a welcome and overdue initiative, and an indirect boost for Britain’s many potential ‘learning cities’.
We should note however that the discourse is couched just in terms of economic growth. PASCAL government-watchers – and lobbyists – might bear in mind the title of one of the Observatory’s earliest books, published in 2005: Rebalancing the social and economic. This notion looks if anything still more fanciful than it did a decade ago.
Chris Duke 9 August 2014