The role of higher education in Levelling Up: reforming or subverting the market?

by Colin McCaig

Why isn’t higher education seen as playing a role in levelling up? On first reading the Levelling Up the United Kingdom White Paper, there appears to be a ‘higher education’ sized gap in the middle of its argument, between where it talks about the need for more ‘skills’ (without specifying the levels of study required) and where it identifies the need to grow ‘research and development clusters’ in left behind areas. It manages to do this without reference to where highly qualified researchers are educated and choose to live, or the relationship between where those researchers live and where hi-tech companies choose to locate.

The white paper looks to be either deliberately obtuse in ignoring the future role of HE in communities with relatively low levels of HE participation, or carefully worded boosterism for the benighted Further Education and Skills sector and the white paper Skills for jobs: lifelong learning for opportunity and growth.

However, a flurry of reform statements that followed in February and March 2022 actually repositions the levelling up document as the keystone supporting potentially radical changes to the entire marketised post-compulsory and higher education system. The (long awaited) government response to the Augar report (2019) offers a series of policy solutions that are intended to redirect some potential applicants away from degree-level study (by removing eligibility for student loans for those with low A level grades), with attendant negative implications for the diversity of the student body given the known association between socioeconomic background and educational attainment. Much of the levelling up agenda only makes sense when read again in the light of these statements and accompanying consultation documents issued by the HE regulator the Office for Students.

Staring into the gap

When it appeared in January 2022, the grand strategy of the white paper combined conservatism with dynamism encouraged by reform in order to both enhance economic and cultural success and improve productivity in those areas of ‘those parts of the UK that have stalled and not – so far – shared equally in our nation’s success. So far, so encouraging. But it soon becomes clear that while educational attainment in some parts of the UK is identified as a deficit, higher education and the universities are not envisaged as part of a solution despite the work of the Civic Universities Network precisely designed to emphasise HE’s regional importance. The white paper notes that higher education and the universities actively contribute to the larger ‘geographical differences than many other developed countries on multiple measures, including productivity, pay, educational attainment and health’, not least because the ‘shift from technical training to university education … have had a large and lasting impact on the economic geography of the UK’ (LUUK, executive summary). Expansion of higher education opportunities (with due regard to enhancing access for those from disadvantaged backgrounds), then, is no longer seen as part of the policy diet when it comes to levelling up these left-behind communities – a significant omission considering how long and tortuous has been the development of marketised HE expansion over three decades.

Levelling Up or narrowing opportunities?

It is interesting to note the lack of focus on the individual and individual choice in a Conservative document, a real shift from previous policy discourses about the market and higher education, culminating in the 2017 Act. In addition, despite all the work being encouraged in recent years to realise the ‘value of higher education’ through the Civic University movement, the white paper notes that ‘civic institutions tend to lack capacity and capability, and pride in local communities is depleted’. By implication, then, universities are presumably also failing to develop Institutional capitalin the form of ‘local leadership, capacity and capability’. By their omission from the white paper then, higher education institutions contribute nothing to ‘infrastructure’, or to the ‘health and skills of the workforce’; nor to ‘innovation, ideas or patents’, and, of course, nothing done in HE contributes to ‘local leadership, capacity and capability’. 

Some things don’t change though – as with much of the policy discourse that underpinned the previous market regime, there is space to celebrate the fact that our most august universities are still there to offer a generous leg-up to ‘talented children from disadvantaged backgrounds’ so that they can ‘progress on to leading universities’ (LLUK Executive Summary), a move realised in the University Minister’s speech which offered a new National Scholarship Programme, again only targeted at the ‘brightest’ to access ‘leading universities’. At some future point a Minister is going to have to stand up in the House of Commons and declare the reduction in the proportions of care leavers, poor and non-White students at universities a successful policy outcome – all in the name of levelling up.

Colin McCaig is a Professor of Higher Education Policy at Sheffield Hallam University. Along with co-editors Jon Rainford (Open University) and Ruth Squire (SIOE PhD student), he will publish ‘The Business of Widening Participation: Policy, Practice and Culture’ (Emerald Publishing) in October 2022.


Department for Business Innovation and Skills (DBIS) (2015) Fulfilling our Potential: Teaching Excellence, Social Mobility and Student Choice, (Green Paper)London: TSO

Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities (2022) Levelling Up the United Kingdom White Paper, Published 2 February 2022. HM Government  

Department for Education (2021) Skills for jobs: lifelong learning for opportunity and growth, DfE January 2021

Skills for jobs: lifelong learning for opportunity and growth – GOV.UK (

Department for Education (2022) Higher Education policy statement and reform, Published 24 February 2022. HM government  

Donelan, M. (2022) ‘Higher and Further Education Minister Michelle Donelan speech on the Augar Review’, available at: (Accessed 22 February 2022)  

Independent Panel Report to the Review of Post-18 Education and Funding (Augar Review) (2019) Presented to Parliament by the Secretary of State for Education by Command of Her Majesty, May 2019

McCaig, C (2018) The marketisation of English Higher Education: a policy analysis of a risk-based system, Emerald Publishing ISBN: 9781787438576

McCaig, C (2019) Augar and the Impact on the English Higher Education Market, SIPS Blog: 24th June 2019 Augar and the Impact on the English Higher Education Market – The Sheffield Institute for Policy Studies

Office for Students (2022b) Consultation on constructing student outcome and experience indicators for use in OfS regulation, OfS reference e OfS 2022.03, Published 20 January 2022

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