In 1984, police and striking miners fought at the coking plant at Orgreave, South Yorkshire, in one of the most violent and pivotal clashes in British industrial history. Today, Orgreave is the site of another battle, one that may determine the fate of the government’s plan to build an “MIT of the north”.
The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) is a private research university world-famous for turning its cutting-edge research into the spinouts, skilled jobs and cold hard cash that universities in the north of England have struggled to deliver.
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On Orgreave’s once poisoned land, there are now green fields, hi-tech factories and labs, along with a training centre for more than 800 apprentices. Together they have brought more than 700 high-skilled jobs to a corner of South Yorkshire that had become a byword for de-industrialisation. Land that was worth £30,000 an acre 15 years ago is now valued at £800,000 an acre. This is the University of Sheffield’s Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre (AMRC), the “crown jewel” of the UK’s innovation and research community.
“We should be immensely proud that we can take a location that was at the centre of so much heartache and turn it into something genuinely wonderful,” says Professor Dave Petley, vice-president for innovation, University of Sheffield.
The centre has come a long way. In 2001 the vision to transform the old coking site was scoffed at by many in the establishment. Now, Professor Keith Ridgway, one of the co-founders of the research centre, is invited to Downing Street to discuss how to level up the north.
But when Ridgway and three other co-founders retired in October last year, it was reported that their departure followed a decision by the university to exercise greater control over the centre. In January, Ridgway called for the AMRC to become independent of the university, and join a research network that would transform overlooked towns like Bolton, Halifax and Redcar.
Three months later the government’s £750m Powering the north – Manufacturing Institute of Technology (MIT) report was leaked, and bore a striking similarity to Ridgway’s pitch. It aims to shift the focus of research and innovation away from the metropolitan universities to the former mill, steel and manufacturing towns of the north, many of which voted Conservative for the first time in 2019.
Now the AMRC is locked in a power struggle between industry and academia. Two proposals have been sent to the government: one industry-led plan featuring an independent AMRC, and another proposal from the universities of Sheffield, Manchester and Strathclyde. At stake is the future of universities in the UK and the success of Boris Johnson’s plans to level up the north.
Petley says: “We agree that the AMRC is the model to do it [the MIT of the north] with. What we struggle to understand is the logic in taking a model that has been so successful using the can-do attitude and strength of the university, and going independent.”
But Ridgway feels differently: “Perhaps the critical question is, are universities the right hosts for these translational research institutes?” He adds: “MIT is a research organisation with an entrepreneurial culture that does some teaching rather than a traditional UK university.”
The government’s new research and development roadmap has Dominic Cummings’s fingerprints all over it. Britain has a long-term disease: it fails to translate its world-leading science into world-beating products for industry. The roadmap aims to fix this problem by breaking the dominance that universities have over research and innovation in the UK. It argues that the ponderous red tape of traditional UK universities hinders the agile decision-making and risk-taking entrepreneurial culture of research institutes like the AMRC, and their ability to deliver the technology and jobs of the future.
Yet critics argue that it overlooks the success that universities are having at spinning out businesses, potentially spells the end of 200 years of academic autonomy, and is little more than a get-rich quick scheme for greedy executives.
The idea of a British MIT returned to our national conversation following a report from the UK2070 commission, an independent inquiry into city and regional inequalities in the UK. While Gordon Brown spent £69m on the ill-fated “MIT-Cambridge Institution” in 1999, the commission called for an “MIT of the north”.
“Whatever we do has to be comprehensive, long-game and large-scale,” says Lord Kerslake, the commission’s chair. “The UK is not only one of the most unequal countries in the developed world, 28th out of 40, but it is likely to get even more unequal unless we take some ambitious and significant action.”
The innovative approach of the AMRC, its success in boosting South Yorkshire’s economy and its global presence, had already earned it admirers in the government. “There are three strands of conservative thinking that come together in the MIT of the north,” says Nick Hillman, director of Higher Education Policy Institute (Hepi).
“The first is the sort of radical conservatism that is articulated by someone like Dominic Cummings, who thinks you need to start things from scratch because existing institutions are too slow. The second strand of thinking is a sort of general unhappiness because they are a bit left of centre and not sufficiently innovative. And the third is the desire to have some really good, world-class institutions outside the golden triangle [of Oxford, Cambridge and London], which ties in with the last election and the fall of Labour’s red wall.”
But there are some crucial differences between MIT and the rival plans – notably in scale. At MIT teaching accounts for only 10% of income, and directly funded industrial research for around 25%. Last year the MIT endowment fund reached $17.4bn. MIT typically forms 30 spinout companies each year, and MIT alumni are serial entrepreneurs who have founded 30,00 companies producing annual revenues of $1.9tn.
Perhaps the greatest challenge, though, is the graduate mindset. “On a recent visit to MIT I was asked: ‘What would a final-year engineering student in the UK say if you asked them who they wanted to work for next year?’ I suggested a company such as Rolls-Royce, JLR, Airbus – [somewhere] with a good training and support programme. If you asked an MIT student, they would tell you they wanted to work for themselves. It is fairly clear that we can’t establish an MIT of the north overnight,” says Ridgway.
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Time is running out for the government and it needs to make an announcement soon. While the pandemic and the power struggle has delayed the decision, the need for post-coronavirus economic recovery and the end of the EU transition period on 31 December 2020 makes it urgent.
“If we genuinely want to create centres of excellence that match Oxford, Cambridge and London, and even open up another golden triangle in the north, then we need to do a lot more than we are doing now,” says Lord Kerslake. “We are some way behind.”
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