Cambridge on the Coast? | Andy Westwood

A former colleague recently tweeted that “what UK really needs is Cambridge on the Coast; a new University for the Coast…” Certainly, we need something. England’s coast is largely poorer than the rest of England and the UK. Skills levels and wages/productivity are typically lower than the English and UK average, as are progression rates to higher education and life chances more broadly. In many ways this is more of an English problem than UK one.

This isn’t the post-industrial Britain of the blue or red wall – former manufacturing, industrial and mining areas, and fishing too – but in many cases it is where they used to go on their holidays. Industrial fortnights to Blackpool or Skegness. In David Goodhart’s controversial typology, coastal communities in England are much more likely to comprise ‘somewheres’ than ‘anywheres’, even during the holiday season.

So the question for universities – or for the ‘anywheres’ that tend to inhabit them – is what, if anything, could they be doing about it? There are already several universities and campuses on (or very near to) the coast in England. From Sussex and Chichester (in Bognor too) to Suffolk, Falmouth, Bournemouth, Portsmouth. Newcastle, Sunderland, Teesside, Hull, Liverpool and so on. The likes of Exeter, Essex, UEA and Lancaster aren’t very far away. There are also large ‘mixed economy’ colleges with substantial higher education offers in places like Grimsby, Great Yarmouth and Blackpool. There are even specialist arts universities too including the University of the Creative Arts in North Kent, Falmouth, Bournemouth (again) and the Northern College of Art in Hartlepool. 

All, alongside every other university in England, are required to recruit broadly to ‘widen participation’ – or to ‘improve access and participation’, in the new regulatory language. In the past – including under the last Labour government – universities were encouraged to open new campuses in ‘cold spots’ including coastal towns. Some are still there in places like Scarborough and Bognor, and many others have collaboration or progression agreements with coastal schools and colleges. Since that time many universities have also been created in coastal locations including UCA, Falmouth, Bournemouth and Ipswich (Suffolk).

But there’s a distinction between where a university is located and what they do in and for such places. There are important differences between recruitment, teaching and learning and research. It’s the latter that can be stickiest. So we should be thinking not just about where universities and colleges are situated, but also their recruitment and their research. If we really want to develop a ‘Cambridge on the Coast’ there are plenty of institutions that with significant R&D investment and capability could be transformative for at least one of the institutional hinterlands listed above.

But it isn’t just the presence of an institution that can make this difference. There must be an intellectual interest too. In other words, how can we get universities including Cambridge to actively think about the challenges facing coastal communities and economies? What are the incentives for academics to think about and tackle coastal issues? There is R&D money for wind power or nuclear, but we could match that with more research from business and the social sciences. Considering the economic and social renewal of ‘left behind’ places including coastal towns is arguably one of the biggest domestic political and policy challenges of our time. 

Politics has recently been focused on the grievances of such people and places and their disconnection and unhappiness at feeling sidelined. And they have often voted accordingly. In the words of Andres Rodriguez Pose at the LSE, this can be described as “the revenge of the places that don’t matter”.

This isn’t going away any time soon. At least not until we have the policy proposals that are likely to make a difference. What will really turn poor coastal communities around? We are short of answers – just as they are in other parts of the world. As Jared Bernstein, adviser to President Biden, said in 2016, “yes, the rust belt demands an answer, but does anybody know what it is?”

But deep in this thinking there are the beginnings of a possible solution. Yes, we should invest more in education with more and better-funded universities and colleges in or near to coastal areas. But the challenge will require more than that. Government has promised to double R&D spending in the next few years. So have Labour. I don’t think it’s too much to spend some of that on coming up with such ideas. That then might be a job for academics at Cambridge and Oxford and for many more in research-intensive universities. Not so much a new ‘Cambridge on the Coast’, but all the efforts of the existing one (and many other universities besides) combining their recruitment and research power to transform our understanding of coastal communities and the life chances of those who live there. It is fashionable these days to talk of research ‘missions’ and, if so, then this should be one of them.

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