The Society for Research into Higher Education

“Levelling Up the United Kingdom”: Examiner’s report

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By Paul Temple

This thesis deals with a topic – the large variations in economic and social conditions across the UK – that is of great interest both to policy-makers and to researchers. Although the present submission unfortunately falls some way short of the standard required for doctoral research, in terms of content, analysis, and presentation, I hope the author can be encouraged to pursue his work to produce a thesis that will do justice to the significance of the topic.

The first difficulty with this thesis is its lack of a clear research question. I think that the author has mistaken the collection of data of a vaguely relevant kind (12 tables and 80 diagrams of various sorts) for research which properly informs the topic under review. The author also makes the basic error of presenting data without showing its relevance: telling us, for example, that Jericho was the largest city in 7000 BC might be relevant if the topic was to do with ancient civilisations, but it verges on the bizarre when the topic is modern Britain. The purpose of the un-captioned pictures of apparently random urban scenes is unclear.

The central research question that might be inferred appears to be something about getting the various intangible “capitals” – human, social, institutional, and so on (as well as the tangible ones) – that social scientists have been developing for nearly half a century to work together more effectively. One of the important policy implications that the thesis then identifies is that achieving this integration requires some serious devolution of power: it notes that levelling-up “requires a further devolution of decision-making powers to local leaders where decisions are often best taken” (Foreword); and that “levelling up will only be successful if local actors are empowered to develop solutions that work for their communities” (133) – and much more in the same vein.

The thesis shows all too clearly, however, that centralised decision-making is so embedded in government thinking that the resulting policy contradictions which are reported on here are seemingly invisible to the author – at least, he does not comment on them. So although the planning of schools is a fundamental task devolved downwards in nearly all countries, here we read that “The UK Government will drive further school improvement in England through 55 new Education Investment Areas (EIAs )in places where educational attainment is currently weakest. The Department for Education (DfE) will support strong multi-academy trusts to expand into these areas” (xxii). In other words, micro-level educational change is still to be controlled centrally, despite the fine words about local devolution of powers. There are many other examples of central decision-making supposedly supporting local initiative when actually it will undermine it. It appears also that simply relocating central government functions from London is regarded as devolution: for example, “taking decision-making closer to the communities the Government serves, including…[moving part of, presumably,] the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) to East Kilbride” (xiii). Quite how the people of East Kilbride might influence international policy is not made plain, nor why their voices should be heard in preference to those of other UK citizens. This kind of unreflective thinking undermines the claims of the thesis.

The academic study of social capital has struggled with the problems of direction of causation and circularity: in other words, are better health outcomes (for example) caused by higher levels of social capital, or do we identify levels of social capital by reference to health outcomes? This difficulty is not mentioned in the thesis: so although we are told that “Smoking rates in England range from 8% in Richmond upon Thames to 23% in Blackpool” (63), it is not clear if the implication is that reducing smoking in Blackpool will cause it to become more like Richmond in other respects; or whether making Blackpool more like Richmond, perhaps economically, will reduce the level of smoking there. Clearly, the policy implications will be different depending on which alternative is favoured; but we are not told which way round the causation works.

The role of higher education in levelling-up is mentioned only in passing, and the institutional significance of universities in their cities – as employers, as forces for internationalisation, and as contributors to the cultural lives of their cities – is not discussed at all. Graduate mobility is examined (90), but the implications of these movements are not explained. The significance of “the Cambridge phenomenon”, and the possibilities of replicating it, are not discussed.

The thesis presents a large number of maps and diagrams showing the concentration of high-value-added economic activities in London and the south-east. What is nowhere mentioned is what has been a truism of economic geography for over half-a-century, namely that the strength of this region derives in substantial part from its proximity to the European economic heartland of north-western Germany, the Low Countries, and the Paris region. The proverbial visitor from Mars, on reading this thesis, might be excused for assuming that Kent looks out on an empty ocean. This obvious omission is hard to explain, and further weakens the argument of the thesis.

Examiner’s decision: resubmit within twelve months, with major amendments.

Dr Paul Temple is Honorary Associate Professor in the Centre for Higher Education Studies, UCL Institute of Education.

Author: SRHE News Blog

An international learned society, concerned with supporting research and researchers into Higher Education

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