Ben Everitt: Why the plan for a new technical university in Milton Keynes offers a fresh model for higher education

16 Sep

Ben Everitt is the MP for Milton Keynes North.

We have world class universities in this country, which provide some of the highest calibre graduates around. We must maintain and protect our best institutions. But speaking to businesses in my constituency, they tell me that what they want isn’t always graduates. It’s workers with technical skills, an understanding of the industry they want to work in, and who are ready to work in teams and who can communicate.

That’s why this Government is right to be taking a hard look at the system of higher and further education in this country. It isn’t ‘anti university’ to be asking whether the current system provides the best opportunity for those going through it, for the businesses who will employ them, and for the taxpayer. It’s making an argument for a world class higher and further education system for everyone, in a wider variety of forms.

And when we think about what that looks like, we don’t have far to go. We should take inspiration from one of this Conservative Government’s proudest achievements – Free Schools. These schools, often set up in the poorest areas of the country by innovative teachers and heads, were distinctive not just because they were new, but because they offered something different.

Like the best businesses, they spotted a gap in the market and they provided a solution to fill it. And many of them – such as Michaela Community School, run by the outstanding Katharine Birbalsingh – have been successful precisely because they have maintained this focus over time, rather than doing everything.

We have some of that in higher education, but not enough. In my constituency, for example, the Open University does a brilliant job because it focuses on a specific remit – providing flexible distance learning to those who don’t want to, or aren’t able to, undertake traditional three year full time undergraduate degrees. To adapt the Steve Jobs maxim, it does not try to do everything – it does one thing, and does it well. But we need more innovation from the higher education sector, not more of the same.

It’s why I’m such a strong supporter, alongside my fellow Milton Keynes MP Iain Stewart, of the new proposed technical university in my constituency, Milton Keynes University (MK:U). This institution, modelled on the best technical universities in Germany and the United States, has identified a clear gap, which is the shortage of digital and STEM skills in the economy throughout Milton Keynes. I’m privileged in my constituency to sit in the middle of the Oxford to Cambridge Arc – a zone of immense prosperity and economic growth that is home to world class businesses and innovation.

But what Milton Keynes needs is people who can work in these businesses – and who have qualifications that are industry ready. And that’s what MK:U will deliver. By 2021, MK:U plans to be delivering degree apprenticeships in the critical shortage areas of data science, cyber security, digital technology, and management. By 2024, when the university is fully on stream, it will continue to deliver at least half of its provision via degree apprenticeships.

It will also work closely with the new South Central Institute of Technology to deliver high quality technical qualifications at what are called Level 4 and 5 – above the level of school qualifications, but quicker to achieve and more industry-focussed than traditional degrees.

The reason I’m so confident in the success of MK:U is that the team there have been overwhelmed by interest from businesses. Over a hundred major employers, who between them employ over 700,000 people in the UK alone, are backing MK:U, including top-level support from Arriva, Bosch, BT, Capita, Grant Thornton, Network Rail, PwC, Sainsburys, and Santander – who specifically cited MK:U as a key element in its decision to locate its new £150 million Digital Hub in Milton Keynes, and has committed £10 million capital funding and £20 million of in-kind support, to MK:U.

MK:U is backed by Cranfield, the world recognised postgraduate university with a long track record in scientific and business research, and another example of an institution that knows what it does and does it well. Like Cranfield, and like the OU, MK:U will keep to its mission. It won’t offer a wide range of liberal arts and humanities degrees. It won’t chase faddish new disciplines and courses merely to attract students. It will focus on driving prosperity in the Arc, and for the UK more widely.

I know that Ministers in the Education and Communities departments, and in the Treasury are studying the proposal closely as we approach the Spending Review. It has the potential to make a real difference – and to provide a model that other, ‘Free’, universities could follow too.

James Palmer: Why I’m backing electric bikes as a safe and healthy way to travel in my region

21 Aug

James Palmer is the directly elected Mayor of Cambridgeshire and Peterborough.

This month, the Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Combined Authority became the first region in the country to roll out e-bikes and e-scooters to the public so people can enjoy quicker, healthier journeys as they return to work and school.

Electric bikes and scooters have the potential to revolutionise travel, making fast, clean, and inexpensive journeys possible, and help to ease congestion, reduce pollution, and allow for social distancing.

As an innovative organisation, focused on delivery, the Combined Authority has brought forward this solution by appointing European e-scooter operator, Voi, on a 12-month trial basis. Voi will provide e-bikes across the region and test out e-scooters in the centre of Cambridge where they will be assessed closely for safety and viability in the coming weeks, with e-bikes rolled out in October.

This move follows a recent announcement of £2.9 million, negotiated from central government, to improve cycle and pedestrian facilities across the region to get more people walking and cycling.

These measures are part of a vision for healthier and more sustainable travel across Cambridgeshire and Peterborough post-Covid.

Traditional modes of public transport have been hit hard by social distancing.

In Cambridgeshire and Peterborough bus use is just over a third of what it was pre-Covid in Peterborough and only one-fifth of what it was in Cambridge.

Footfall at One Station Square in Cambridge has fallen from a peak of 18,000 people crossing in March before lockdown, to an average of below 2,000 since. There are signs of people making more train journeys again, with a high of 8,000 footfalls recorded in August.

Meanwhile, average daily car use in some parts of the region, such as South Cambridgeshire, is as much as 24 per cent higher than pre-lock down levels and that is before many people have returned to the office and children to school.

It seems while the threat of Covid-19 remains, many people feel reluctant to make journeys by bus or train and so there needs to be a viable public transport option which allows for social distancing.

Without drastic action and investment in alternative modes of travel, congestion on the roads could reach a critical point very quickly as more people are encouraged to return to the office, and children are expected to return to school. Or, we could have a situation where people are discouraged from returning to public life, opting to remain at home. Both scenarios could have disastrous consequences for our region.

Firstly, for our economy. Recorded footfall in retail locations are down 41 per cent in Cambridge and 34 per cent in Huntingdon to the same point last year. We simply must get people out and about again or our local businesses, restaurants and highstreets will suffer.

And, for our environment. Emissions from cars and emissions per capita are 50 per cent above the national average in Cambridgeshire. On average, 106 deaths per year in the Greater Cambridge region alone can be attributed to air pollution.

During lockdown, carbon emissions dropped by 17 per cent, with Cambridgeshire and Peterborough on track to record a 27 per cent decrease in carbon emissions this year. But with public transport use down by two thirds, and car use going up, we must reverse these trends if we are to meet our target of eradicating carbon emissions by 2050.

Electrically assisted bikes provide a safe and healthy alternative mode of travel to the private car, bus, or train, which enables the user to practice social distancing while also helping to reduce carbon emissions.

E-bikes are likely to be placed at rail stations throughout the region, as well as at Park and Ride sites, and potentially at stops along the guided bus way, so they can be relied upon by commuters for significant parts of their journey to work and by others including students and visitors travelling into cities, towns, and other areas of interest and leisure.

It is thought that 60 per cent of current car journeys are only 1-2 miles in length and e-scooters and other modes of active travel could help significantly reduce unnecessary reliance on cars for these short journeys. E-scooters will allow visitors, tourists, students, and commuters to make quick short journeys across town.

The initiative by the Combined Authority to provide e-bikes and e-scooters will aim to reduce by 400 tonnes of CO2 emissions across the region by August 2021.

Providing e-bikes and e-scooters will also help to prevent the spread of coronavirus by allowing people to make journeys while remaining socially distanced. In addition, handlebars will be covered in Shieldex® Copper-Tape designed to kill 99.98 per cent of coronavirus on contact and all scooters are disinfected every 24 hours.

Along with a decrease in carbon emissions, due to a temporary drop in car use during lockdown, this year has also seen a 200 per cent increase in people using cycle to work schemes. With people enjoying improved air quality and fitter lifestyles, the benefits to a fully integrated active network for our region are clear and our investment shows we are serious about making our vision for greener more sustainable travel, a reality.

Neil O’Brien: No, more economic prosperity doesn’t depend on more social liberalism

13 Jul

Neil O’Brien is MP for Harborough.

Danny Finkelstein took issue with Boris Johnson’s idea of “levelling up” in the Times the other day. He reviewed the work of Richard Florida, a thinker dubbed the “patron saint of avocado toast” for highlighting the role of bohemian urbanites in driving economic regeneration.

Danny concludes from his work that, “Social liberalism and economic prosperity go together.” He argues that: “in order to match the success and power of metropolitan areas, non-metropolitan places need to become more… metropolitan.  The problem with the metropolitan “elite” isn’t that there is too much of it. It’s that there aren’t enough members of it, drawn from a wide enough background and living in enough places.”

I hesitate to disagree with one of the smartest columnists on the planet. But economic growth and social liberalism don’t always go together.

What about the Victorians, combining breakneck growth with a religious revival and tightened public morals? What about Japan during their postwar decades of blistering growth and conservative “salaryman” culture? Over the last 70 years, Britain has become more socially liberal as our growth rate has slowed.

Even in Britain today, it’s highly questionable. London is the richest and fastest growing part of the UK.  But where is opposition to homosexuality and pre-marital sex strongest? London. Where is support for censoring offensive speech highest? London.  The capital mixes liberal metropolitan graduates with religious immigrants. Its success is shaped by both.

Danny’s other argument has more important implications. Is it really the case other places must emulate London to succeed? Like other capital cities across Europe, London has grown faster than the rest of the country since the 1980s. The shift to an economy based on “office jobs” over has favoured the centres of larger cities.

But we shouldn’t get too carried away by the idea that hipster-powered megacities are sweeping all before them. For starters, there are successes elsewhere. Cheshire has high tech in a rural setting, with productivity and wages above the national average.  Milton Keynes likewise, because it’s easy to build there. Productivity in Preston has grown faster than average because it’s a transport hub with advanced manufacturing.

On the surface, large cities outside London have done well.  Since 1997, our 16 largest cities grew their GDP faster than their surrounding areas: Leeds grew faster than West Yorkshire, Manchester faster than Greater Manchester, and so on.

But on average, those cities saw also slower growth in income per head than their surrounding areas. In other words, people became more likely to work in city centres, but that growth was fuelled by people commuting in from smaller places around them. Their growth has been powered more by smalltown commuters than flat-cap wearing uber-boheminans.

It’s right that there are cities outside London that have things in common with it, and might benefit from similar investments. Lawyers in London will soon get Crossrail. So why have lawyers in Leeds waited 20 years for a tram?

But too often Richard Florida’s work leads politicians to focus on shiny cultural facilities. A cool art gallery in West Brom.  A national museum of pop music in Sheffield. It’s not just that these projects flop and close. It’s that they distract from two bigger issues.

First, most people aren’t graduates – so we need a plan to raise their productivity and wages too.

Second, places outside urban centres are perfectly capable of attracting high-skill, high income people – with the right policies.

Britain’s economy is unusually unbalanced compared to other countries.  Pre-tax incomes in Greater London are nearly 60 per cent higher than the national average, but more than 20 per cent below average in Yorkshire, the North East, Wales and Northern Ireland.  These imbalances mean our economy is overheating in some places and freezing cold in others, slowing growth overall. There are no major economies that are richer per head than Britain which have a more unbalanced economy.

But these imbalances don’t represent pure free market outcomes. It’s true that low-skill, low wages places can get stuck in a vicious circle. True that some places on the periphery have very deep problems. Nonetheless, the British state doesn’t do much to stop that – in fact it does a lot to unbalance growth.

Consider how we spend money. Capital spending on transport infrastructure in London is nearly three times the national average. Research funding per head is nearly twice the national average. Nearly half the core R&D budget is spent in Oxford, Cambridge and London. Spending on housing and culture per head in London is five times the national average. We’re “levelling up” the richest places.

We’ve rehearsed these problems for years, but not fixed them. Instead of chasing flat white drinkers, we need to find a cool £4 billion a year to level up R&D spending in other places to the levels London enjoys. Fancy coffee can come later.

Consider our tax system. Overall, the tax rate on business in the UK is about average.  But we combine the lowest headline rate in the G20 with the lowest capital allowances. The combined effect of this is a huge bias against capital intensive sectors, particularly manufacturing.

That in turn has a regional impact, hurting places more dependent on making things: manufacturing accounted for only five per cent of London’s productivity growth since 1997, but nearly 50 per cent in the north west. A hostile tax system is one reason Britain has deindustrialised more than any other G20 country since 1990, and why manufacturing’s share of the economy is half that in Germany or Japan.

Manufacturing should be a key part of levelling up outside cities: it needs space, not city centre locations. In English regions outside London, wages in manufacturing are about nine per cent higher than in services, and manufacturing productivity grows faster than the economy as a whole.  But Britain’s excessive focus on professional services makes it harder to grow high-wage employment in non city-centre locations.

Consider where we put our key institutions. In Germany the political capital was Bonn, and is now Berlin. The financial capital is Frankfurt. The Supreme Court is in Karlsruhe. The richest place is Wolfsburg, home of Volkswagen. There are major corporate HQs spread across the country. TV production is dispersed because central government is banned from running it.

In Britain, all these things happen in just one city. We’ve talked about this for years, but made little progress.  In recent years, we managed to move one chunk of Channel 4 to Leeds, and a bit of the BBC to Manchester. But that’s about it. Whitehall only wants to move low-end jobs.

The debate on levelling up is frustrating, because we know some things work, but we don’t do them. “Regional Selective Assistance” boosted investment in poor places with tax breaks and subsidies.  Thanks to evidence from natural experiments, we know it boosted growth. Yet it was allowed to wither.

I don’t want us to be just another government promising the world, then not delivering. Politically, it’s vital we deliver. Lots of people who haven’t voted Conservative before put their trust in us last year. It’s telling that the centre point of the seats we won is just outside Sheffield.

We won on a manifesto combining centrist economics, (50,000 more nurses) mild social conservatism, (ending auto early release) and national self-confidence (Getting Brexit Done).  Levelling up is central to all this. We promised voters steak and chips.  We could serve up avocado toast instead, but we shouldn’t be surprised if the voters don’t thank us.