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

Manchester. Image: Getty.

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.

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.


How can cities become more bike friendly? The Netherlands offers useful lessons

(Aurore Belot/AFP via Getty Images)

It might seem like cycling is in the DNA of the Netherlands, a country where even the prime minister takes his bicycle to work. But the Dutch haven’t always lived as one with their bikes. In the Amsterdam of the early 1970s, cars were considered the wave of the future. They can be seen filling up squares and streets in historical photographs, and killed an average of over two Amsterdammers per week, including many children.

It is nothing more than an “accident of history” that the Netherlands embraced cycling, says Marco te Brömmelstoet, the director of the Urban Cycling Institute in Amsterdam and a man better known as the city’s cycling professor. Today’s bike rider’s paradise was created after parents and activists took to the streets to protest “child murder” by car. A Saudi oil embargo, rising gas prices, concerns about pollution and anger about the destruction of entire neighbourhoods to build motorways did the rest. 

Amsterdam, 1958. Not a cyclist's paradise. (Keystone/Getty Images)

What’s important about this history is that it can be replicated in other cities, too. Of course, the Netherlands has certain advantages – it’s flat as a pancake, for example. But in the eyes of traffic reformers, the rise of e-bikes (and even cargo bikes) means there’s no excuse for prioritising cars everywhere. 

So how can cities, flat or not, follow Amsterdam’s path to creating places where cycling is a pleasant, safe and common way to get around? The Dutch have some tips. 

Separate bikes from car traffic

Any city could start painting dedicated bike lanes on the streets. But in the Netherlands, those white marks indicating space for cyclists are considered just a minor first step. 

“A line on the road is not enough. Motorists will ignore it,” says Frans Jan van Rossem, a civil servant specialising in cycling policy in Utrecht. If other cities want their residents to choose bikes instead of cars when dodging pandemic-era public transport, protecting them from fast-moving car traffic must be the priority, Van Rossem says. 

The Dutch research institute CROW developed a widely praised design manual for bicycle infrastructure, full of tips for creating these protected lanes: A row of vertical white posts or a curb can serve as a physical separator, for example. Still, cyclists tend to feel safest in a "solitary" path, separated from the road by grass, trees, or an elevated concrete island. 

“The main bottleneck, the main reason why people don’t cycle, is that they don’t feel safe,” Van Rossem notes. “To start, construct separate paths.”

Turn those bike paths into a network

Many cities may have some bike lanes on some streets, but leave cyclists to roll the dice everywhere else. Will conditions still be safe when they turn left or right? Often they have to continue their way without any protected facilities for cyclists. 

“In many cases, cities take fast action, without thinking it through very well,” says Lucas Harms. He leads the Dutch Cycling Embassy, a partnership between the Dutch government and several companies, which promotes Dutch bike knowhow globally. “Don’t build small pieces of bike lane from nothing to nowhere. Think about a network of cycling infrastructure.” 

Utrecht aims to have cyclists within 200 to 300 metres of a connected path anywhere in the city, Van Rossem says. Avoid constructing those paths in sketchy industrial areas, he warns. “A connection through an unattractive area may be fast, but won’t be used a lot.”

Embrace the ‘fietsstraat’, a street where bikes come first

On some streets, drivers have to give up their privileges. (Rick Nederstigt/AFP via Getty Images)

A peculiar Dutch invention called "fietsstraat" (cycling street) holds strong potential for the rest of the world, Kevin Krizek says. He’s a transportation professor from Colorado who spent three years at Radboud University in Nijmegen. 

On cycling streets, cars are “guests”, restricted by a speed limit of 30 kilometres per hour. Drivers are not allowed to pass, so cyclists comfortably dominate the road. In the Netherlands the fietsstraat is usually paved with red asphalt, to resemble a bike path and notify drivers of their secondary status. But creating a cycling street can be easy. “All you need to do is put signs at intersections,” Krizek says. The effect is revolutionary in his view. Drivers have to give up their privileges, and cyclists can take the lead. 

Some Dutch traffic experts worry the cycling street won’t work if a city doesn’t also have a robust cycling culture. In the Netherlands, drivers are aware of the perils of urban cycling because they too use bicycles. Moreover, Dutch cities use sophisticated “circulation plans” to direct cars away from city centres and residential areas, onto a few main routes. 

Without “calming” traffic this way, the cycling street could be a step too far, Harms says. “In a city like New York, where all roads are equally accessible and full, it’s better to separate bicycles and cars,” he says.

Redesign intersections for cyclists' safety

If cyclists have to cross intersections “at the mercy of the Gods”, you’re not there yet, says Harms. When he travels abroad, he often finds clumsily designed crossings. As soon as cars turn, cyclists may fear for their lives. 

Harms recommends placing physical barriers between cars and bikes in places where they must cross. The Dutch build elevated islands to direct traffic into separate sections. The golden rule: cars wait behind bicycles. That way, drivers can see cyclists clearly at all times. Barriers also force Dutch cyclists to turn left in the safest way possible. They cross the street first and wait for their turn again before making their way left.

“You can create that with simple temporary measures,” Harms says. Planters work fine, for example. “They must be forgiving, though. When someone makes a mistake, you don’t want them to get seriously injured by a flower box’s sharp edge.”

Professor Krizek points out how the Dutch integrated cycling routes into roundabouts. Some are small; some are big and glorious, like the Hovenring between Eindhoven and Veldhoven, where cyclists take a futuristic-looking roundabout lifted above the highway. Most of those traffic circles move high volumes of cars and cyclists through intersections efficiently and safely. For a simpler solution, the Dutch manual suggests guiding cyclists to quieter streets – crossing a block up or down may be safer. “Nobody knows how to do intersections better than the Dutch,” says Krizek. 

Ban cars, or at least discourage them

A man rides down from a three-level bicycle parking garage near Amsterdam's main train station. (Timothy Clary/AFP via Getty Images)

The quickest, most affordable way to make a city more bikeable is to ban cars, says Ria Hilhorst, cycling policy advisor for the City of Amsterdam. It will make streets remarkably safe – and will most likely enrage a significant amount of people. 

Amsterdam doesn’t outlaw cars, but it does deliberately make their owners feel unwelcome in the historic city’s cramped streets. Paid parking is hugely effective, for example. Many car owners decide to avoid paying and use bicycles or public transportation for trips into the city. Utrecht, meanwhile, boasts the world’s largest bicycle parking garage, which provides a dizzying 12,500 parking spots.

To further discourage drivers from entering the city’s heart, Amsterdam will soon remove more than 10,000 car-parking spaces. Strategically placed barriers already make it impossible to cross Amsterdam efficiently by car. “In Amsterdam, it is faster to cross the city on a bike than by car,” Harms says. “That is the result of very conscious policy decisions.”

Communicate the benefits clearly

Shopkeepers always fear they will lose clients when their businesses won’t be directly accessible by car, but that’s a myth, says Harms. “A lot of research concludes that better access for pedestrians and cyclists, making a street more attractive, is an economic boost.”

Try replacing one parking space with a small park, he recommends, and residents will see how it improves their community. Home values will eventually rise in calmer, bike-friendlier neighbourhoods without through traffic, Van Rossem says. Fewer cars mean more room for green spaces, for example.

“I often miss the notion that cycling and walking can contribute a lot to the city. One of the greatest threats to public health is lack of exercise. A more walkable and bikeable city can be part of the solution,” says Ria Hilhorst. “But in many countries, cycling is seen as something for losers. I made it, so I have a car and I’m going to use it, is the idea. 

“Changing this requires political courage. Keep your back straight, and present a vision. What do you gain? Tranquility, fewer emissions, health benefits, traffic safety, less space occupied by vehicles.” 

Again, she points to Amsterdam’s history. “It is possible; we were a car city too.”

Karlijn van Houwelingen is a journalist based in New York City.