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 the pandemic is magnifying structural problems in America's housing market

Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Long before Covid-19, the United States suffered from a housing crisis. Across the country, working class and low-income Americans struggled to pay rent, while the possibility of home ownership receded into fantasy. In hot markets, affordability became a struggle for even the middle class: In California, 41 percent of the population spends over a third of their income on housing costs. 

The coronavirus pandemic will only make these trends worse as millions are unable to work and the economy dives into a recession. Building could slow down in the medium term, as construction loans (risky bets in the best of times) become harder to come by. Unsubsidised affordable housing is often owned by small landlords, who are more likely to struggle during recessions, prompting flips to home ownership or sales to rental empires. 

New York Times reporter Conor Dougherty documented America’s longstanding housing crisis – and California’s efforts to battle it – in his book Golden Gates, which debuted just before the pandemic hit. “My sense is that right now coronavirus is magnifying a lot of things that were already happening,” Dougherty says.  


While Covid-19 adds new pressures, he says that many of the same issues we were facing still loom over the issue, from developers crowding the higher end of the market, to escalating construction costs, to stagnating wages and vulnerable service-sector jobs that leave ordinary Americans struggling to keep a roof over their heads. “That’s my larger message,” Dougherty says. “I think the structural problems continue to be a much bigger deal than the cyclical problem in housing.”

CityMetric spoke with Dougherty about how his thinking has changed since Covid-19, Donald Trump’s pro-suburban rhetoric, and the apparent exodus from San Francisco. 

I’ve really been struck by how strong the housing market seems to be despite the epic economic crisis we are facing. Costs seem to be higher everywhere. I've heard realtors talk about bidding wars like they haven't seen before in Philly, where I live. But perhaps that's just pent up demand from the big shutdowns?

What you have is an economy that has bifurcated. You have fewer middle-income jobs, more lower-income service jobs, and more higher-end jobs in software and finance. That's how our economy looks and that's a problem that is going to take the rest of our lives to solve. In the meantime, we have this housing market where one group of people have so much more money to spend than this other group. Cities reflect that. 

What's important about this bifurcation isn't just that you have gross inequality, but that these people have to live next to each other. You cannot be someone's Uber driver and telecommute. You cannot clean someone's house remotely. These lower-end service workers have to occupy the same general housing market as the super-high-end workers. 

All the pandemic has done is thrown that even more out of whack by creating a situation where one group of people is buying and expanding homes or lowering their home cost by refinancing, while another group are at income zero while trying to live in the same housing market with no demand for their services. When you see home prices booming and an eviction tsunami coming in the same newspaper, that tells you the same thing the book was trying to show you.

Does America writ large have the same housing shortage crisis as California and the Bay Area more specifically? There are other super hot markets, like New York City, Boston, or Seattle. But in Philly, or in Kansas City, is there really a lack of supply? 

There are three kinds of cities in America. There are the really out of control, fast-growing, rich cities: the Bay Area, Seattle, New York. There are declining Detroits and Clevelands, usually manufacturing-centric cities. Then there are sprawling Sun Belt cities. This book is by and large concerned with the prosperous cities. It could be Minneapolis, it could be Nashville. But the housing crisis in places like Cleveland is much more tied to poverty, as you pointed out. 

Those kinds of cities do have a different dynamic, although they still do have the same access to opportunity issues. For instance, there are parts of Detroit that are quite expensive, but they're quite expensive because that's where a lot of the investment has gone. That's where anybody with a lot of money wants to live. Then you have Sun Belt cities like Dallas and Houston, which are starting to become a lot more expensive as well. Nothing like the Bay Area, but the same forces are starting to take root there. 

I think that the Bay Area is important because throughout history, when some giant American industry has popped up, people have gone to Detroit or Houston. Now tech, for better or for worse, has become the industrial powerhouse of our time. But unlike Detroit in its time, it's very hard for people to get close to and enjoy that prosperity. There's a certain kind of city that is the future of America, it has a more intellectual economy, it's where new productive industries are growing. I think it's an outrage that all of them have these housing crises and it's considered some insane luxury to live there. 

A recent Zillow study seemed to show there hasn't been a flood of home sales in the pandemic that would signify a big urban exodus from most cities, with the glaring exception of San Francisco. Do you think that could substantially alleviate some of the cost pressure in the city proper?

On the one hand, I think this is about the general economy. If unemployment remains over 12% in San Francisco, yes, rent is going to be a lot cheaper. But is that really the reality we're all looking for? If restaurants and bars that were key to the city's cultural life remain shut, but rent is cheaper, is that what everyone wants? I bet you when this is all over, we're going to find out the tech people left at a much lower rate than others. Yes, they can all work from home, but what do you think has a bigger impact on a city: a couple of companies telling people they can work from home or the total immolation of entire industries basically overnight?

I don't want to make predictions right now, because we're in the middle of this pandemic. But if the city of San Francisco sees rents go down, well, the rent was already the most expensive in the nation. It falls 15%, 20%? How much better has that really gotten? Also, those people are going to go somewhere and unless they all move quite far away, you're still seeing these other markets picking up a lot of that slack. And those places are already overburdened. Oakland's homeless problem is considerably worse than San Francisco's. If you drive through Oakland, you will see things you did not think possible in the United States of America. 

Speaking of markets beyond San Francisco, you have a chapter about how difficult it is to build housing in the municipalities around big cities – many of which were just founded to hive off their tax revenues from low-income people.

That’s why you see Oregon, California, or the Democratic presidential candidates talking about shaking this up and devising ways to kick [zoning] up to a higher level of government. We've always done this whenever we've had a problem that seems beyond local governance. Like voting rights: you kick it to a higher body when the local body can't or won't solve it. 

But for better or for worse, this suburban thing is part of us now. We cannot just undo that. This notion of federalism and local control, those are important American concepts that can be fiddled with at the edges, but they cannot be wholesale changed. 

The first time I ever met Sonja Trauss [a leader of the Bay Area YIMBY group], she told me she wasn't super concerned about passing new laws but that the larger issue was to change the cultural perception of NIMBYism. We were living in a world where if you went to a city council meeting and complained about a multifamily development near your single-family house, you were not accosted for trying to pump up your property values or hoard land in a prosperous city. You were seen as a defender of the neighbourhood, a civically-minded person.

What is significant about YIMBYism is that the cultural tide is changing. There is this whole group of younger people who have absorbed a new cultural value, which is that more dense housing, more different kinds of people, more affordable housing, more housing options, is good. It feels like the tide is turning culturally and the movement is emblematic of that. I think that value shift will turn out to have been much more lasting than anything Scott Wiener ever does. Because the truth is, there are still going to be a bunch of local battles. Who shows up and how those places change from within probably will turn out to be more important. 

As you said, we've been seeing a lot of Democratic candidates with proposals around reforming zoning. How does Joe Biden's plan compare to the scope of the ambition in the field? 

There are two big ideas that you could pull from all the plans. First, some kind of renter's tax credit. It is obscene that we live in a country where homeowners are allowed to deduct their mortgage interest, but renters aren't. It is obscene that we live in a world where homeowners get 30-year fixed mortgages that guarantee their house payment pretty much for life and renters don't. If we think that it's a good idea to protect people from sudden shocks in their housing costs, that is as good of an idea for renters as it is for homeowners. 

I tell people that in this country, homeowners are living in the socialist hellscape of government intervention and price controls. Renters are living in the capitalist dream of variable pricing and market forces. Homeowners think they're living in this free market, but actually they're in the most regulated market – there are literally price controls propping up their market mortgages. 

Then there is Section 8 housing. Right now homeowners get access to the mortgage interest deduction. That programme is available to as many people as can use it, yet only about a quarter of the people eligible for Section 8 can get it. I think rectifying that is hugely important and a lot of the plans talked about that. 

The second big idea is using the power of the purse to incentivise people to more robustly develop their regions. You should have higher density housing in fancy school districts, near job centres, near transit. We're going to use the power of the purse to incentivise you, within the bounds of your own local rules, to do this right. Of course, that’s what Donald Trump is running against when he talks about Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing (AFFH). 

When I was a local reporter in Philly, the city went through with that AFFH regulation despite Trump and HUD Secretary Ben Carson not being interested in enforcing it anymore. The city produced a fat report that maybe a few people read, but I don't think it changed policy. It's this phantom that Trump is running against, an ideal version of the policy that did not exist. It's also a phantom no one's heard of until Trump started tweeting about it. 

It’s been bizarre to watch. But Trump does seem to recognise that suburban politics don’t neatly fit into a red or blue construct. People who live in Texas and claim to want a free market system will turn around and erect local regulation to make sure nobody can build apartments near them. People in the Bay Area who claim to be looking for a more diverse place will use different logic, anti-developer logic, to keep apartments being built near them. 

People like that regardless of how they feel about things nationally. The bluntness with which Trump is doing it is discordant with the electorate and quixotic because people don't know what he's talking about. But the basic things he recognises – can I make voters feel like their neighbourhoods are threatened – he's onto something there. As with many things Trump, his tactics are so off-putting that people may ultimately reject them even if under the surface they agree.

You hear people on the left say the scary thing about Trump is that one day a good demagogue could come along. They're going to actually tax private equity people and they're actually going to build infrastructure. They're going to actually do a lot of popular stuff, but under a racist, nationalist banner. I think the suburban thing is a perfect example of that. There's a lot of voters even in the Bay Area who [would support that policy] in different clothing.

The world has changed completely since Golden Gates debuted just a few months ago. Has your thinking about housing issues changed as a result of the seismic disruptions we are living through?

The virus has done little more than lay itself on top of all of the problems I outline in the book. Whether we have an eviction tsunami or not, a quarter of renters were already spending more than half their income on rent. There's a chapter about overcrowded housing and how lower-income tenants are competing with each other by doubling, tripling, and quadrupling up for the scant number of affordable apartments. We now know that overcrowded housing is significantly more of a risk [for Covid-19] than, say, dense housing. If you live in a single-family home with 15 people in it, that's a lot more dangerous than 40 apartments in a four-story building.

Housing is just a proxy for inequality, it's a way of us building assets for one group at the exclusion of another. It is an expression of the general fraying of American society. I don't feel like that larger message has been affected at all, it's only been enhanced by the pandemic. With the caveat that this can all change, it just doesn't seem to me like there's some uber housing lesson we can learn from this – other than having a bunch of people crowded together is a really bad idea. 

Jake Blumgart is a staff writer at CityMetric.