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June 20, 2019updated 03 Aug 2023 3:02pm

England needs to close the north-south divide in higher education, too

By Peter White

Higher Education provision in Britain is painfully imbalanced – and Philip Augar’s recent recommendations may exacerbate this gap.

Three southern cities, also known as the “golden triangle”, receive 46 per cent of government’s research budget. London is ranked as one of the best cities in the world for students. Oxford and Cambridge hold approximately £3bn in assets each; meanwhile, the combined total of the remainder of the national higher education sector totals only £2bn. The combination of London’s strength and Oxbridge’s privilege is propelling the South East ahead as the rest of the nation falls behind.

But the next British cities after London are doing far worse than cities of similar size or rank in Australia, Canada and the US. Britain’s second cities, Manchester and Birmingham – let’s save the debate over who gets the second city title for another day – are falling behind not just educationally but economically.

The UK is almost unique in having no relationship between size of city and productivity and Manchester and Birmingham’s economic underperformance is central to this. Agglomeration benefits suggest that, the larger a city is, the more economically productive it should be. This model holds true for the USA, Germany, France – but not the UK. Manchester and Birmingham’s productivity falls woefully behind much smaller cities such as Bristol, York or Edinburgh.

Is education provision the missing piece to the productivity puzzle? When population density is mapped against higher education providers, the North West and West Midlands have been highlighted as areas of low provision and Greater Manchester has around half the number of universities per head compared to London. Although Manchester and Birmingham host some excellent, large universities, this doesn’t compensate for a relative lack of diversity or wealth.

Before I continue, lets review how higher education developed in England. (Scotland has always had a strong and distinct HE sector; Wales and NI face different challenges.) Oxford University was founded around 1096, upstream from the capital and royal palaces. A few generations later some disgruntled Oxford students founded the University of Cambridge. Access to a degree in England remained an exclusively southern two-horse, race for the next 700 odd years. Meanwhile, Scotland, Spain, France and the territories of today’s Italy and Germany, went on to establish third fourth and fifth universities across their regions.

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A map of universities in England with more than three faculties. Image: author provided.

Unlike continental second cities, which have been national capitals for most of their history – Barcelona, Munich – Manchester and Birmingham were insignificant towns in backwater regions as recently as a few centuries ago. The industrial revolution transformed these minor settlements into 18th century behemoths. London may have been very late to establish a university but it has benefited from hosting most learned societies and dominating legal education (it continues to host the only institutions with the power to call a barrister to the bar in England and Wales). Edinburgh has enjoyed similar historical advantages.

Most English universities have their roots in 19th century institutions, and during this period access to higher education opened up across the regions, if you were rich and male. Yet London, the imperial capital of the British Empire, benefitted more than the other English cities. The School of Oriental and African Studies was established to educate colonial administrators and military officers of the customs, religion and language of the countries they governed; the London School of Economics and Political Science was established to educate how to govern and administrate the colonies. The arts also flourished under aristocratic patronage – think royal academies of Music, Art or Dramatic Art – which northern industrialists, who were often ascetic protestants, were less likely to fund.

Manufacturing dominated the economies in England’s second cities, which fostered the development of innovative technical schools such as University of Manchester Institute for Technology, the Mason College of Science, the John Dalton College of Technology, Owens College, the Manchester School of Design and the Birmingham Municipal Technical School. Sadly, these institutions have been gobbled up by large civic universities, which restricts the diversity, competition and specialism in Brum-chester.


Chronic underinvestment in regional transport also creates barriers to local students accessing education by limiting the possibilities of studying from home. Birmingham is particularly poorly served as long distance trains clog up the limited rail network, and the tram network is currently only one line. Most Brummies are forced to rely on their choked road network, which exacerbates the low productivity problem. Birmingham is essentially functioning as a city half its size meaning that citizens can’t access the education, jobs, goods and services their city offers.

The inequality in university provision doesn’t just harm the regions left behind. A community hospital in Oxford has recently closed down because it can’t recruit enough nurses. Nurses are deterred from living in Oxford due to extortionate house prices, which are fueled by the university buying up a large portion of the city (579 accommodation properties held by University of Oxford alone)., Oxbridge has always held a privileged position in the UK HE market but its advantage has been persistently protected. When marketisation was introduced, Oxbridge was able to carve out a deal whereby tit didn’t complete for undergraduates, and for decades additional public funds were provided to subsidise the inefficient collegiate system.

Augar’s report suggests limiting funding to programmes with poor earning prospects, which will benefit the South East the most as their graduates have the best access to the jobs market. Arts degrees outside the South East will be hit particularly badly, which will increase the inequality in arts funding.

We need a more radical review that rebalances education provision and the economy. The pseudo-marketised system currently in place rewards privilege and incentivises universities to seek profitable programmes rather than serve students.

Augar is right to recommend more support for mature and part time students but avoids the more fundamental inequalities in funding and provision. Manchester and Birmingham cannot prosper economically without a highly skilled populous, and the HE sector will not thrive until their economies have the tools, such as a decent transport system, to succeed. Public funds need to be distributed more equally across our urban areas and a more far-reaching review needs to address the gap in HE provision.  

In conclusion: Manchester is in fact hands down Britain’s second city, see musical heritage for the most objective evidence of this. 

Peter White is a tutor in the Faculty of Health, Psychology and Social Care at Manchester Metropolitan University.

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