Thriving universities are a vital component of social mobility and economic growth

At this time of year, sixth form students everywhere are contemplating what next? After finishing compulsory education or training, around 700,000 decide to go to university - a big life decision, particularly given the financial implications of student loans, a cost-of-living crisis and an uncertain jobs market.

Around three million people from all over the world study at UK higher education institutions each year, gaining the knowledge, skills and ability to pursue their ambitions, and putting graduates in a strong competitive position in the jobs market.  

For the towns and cities that are home to universities, this influx of students can feel a mixed blessing. While acknowledging the need to educate the next generation of highly skilled workers and the benefits of cutting-edge research, there are also concerns about stretching local services, inflated housing costs and potential anti-social behaviour.  

 In recent months, these concerns have been exacerbated by political criticism of the higher education sector as part of so-called ‘Culture Wars’ but also more fundamental questioning of the value of universities, culminating in the Prime Minister recently claiming higher education expansion was, “one of the greatest mistakes of the last 30 years”.   

I fundamentally disagree with this statement. I’d argue that universities offer a life-changing, life-enhancing experience for many students – the most important driver of social mobility ever produced.  

We know from the latest data, a degree from a UK university continues to give a significant boost to employment prospects and earning potential. But the benefits of universities go way beyond the benefit to individual students. The positive impact of universities on UK PLC is significant, yet frequently underreported.

Professor Kevin Kerrigan
Professor Kevin Kerrigan

It is widely recognised universities bring a wealth of benefits through core research, knowledge exchange and business support, community outreach, cultural development, and urban regeneration.   

But do they pull their weight economically? The remarkable contribution universities can make is highlighted in a new report: The University of Hull Economic Impact Study. 

This report, by Biggar Economics, reviews the academic year 2021-22 and reveals the wider economic impact on our city, region and country as a whole. It indicates how vital this university is in its locality, providing insight into the embedded nature of university operations and the clear link to economic, social and health outcomes.   

The report also paints a positive picture of students as drivers of economic vibrancy and community cohesion.   

The University of Hull is already recognised nationally for its excellent work to promote economic growth and regeneration in the recent Knowledge Exchange Framework, a benchmark by Research England of business and community collaboration in universities. Our focus for local growth and regeneration has been through our innovation support ecosystems for regional SMEs via our funded programmes with Aura, SparkFund and the Flood Innovation Centre.   

This new report builds on this picture with compelling figures; In 2021-22, the University of Hull generated £1.2bn Gross Value Added (GVA) for the UK economy, supporting 14,480 jobs. Around £700m of this was in the Humber region and almost £500m, and 6,660 jobs, in Hull itself.  In the same year, just over a quarter of that £1.2bn GVA (£334m) came from University income, staff spending, supply chain and capital investment.

As a research-led institution, it is more than heartening that the impact of our research and innovation accounts for approaching £150m of our contribution to economic prosperity. But it’s the impact of our graduates which accounts for the lion’s share of the overall impact - £513m. 

Nearly 5,000 students graduate from the University every year, each generating a financial return by obtaining their degree. Of the graduates that stay in the UK, more than half remain in Hull and the Humber region, working in the area’s industries, hospitals and in other professions or running their own businesses.  There is no doubt that they bring so much to our region – caring for those in hospital; bringing advanced skills into businesses, the list goes on. 

At Hull, more than half of our students work during their studies and around 4,000 undertake more than 170,000 hours of voluntary activity in the region. The energy, vitality and vibrant cultures that students bring to local communities is a real positive.  

Hull is a city with major economic and social challenges. It has the fourth highest deprivation score in England and the highest in Yorkshire and Humber with almost half of neighbourhoods among the most deprived 10 per cent nationally.  

Education is a proven pathway to prosperity for individuals and communities, so a thriving university is a vital component of social mobility and economic growth.   


This article by Professor Kevin Kerrigan was originally published by The Yorkshire Post.

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