Going Up: how business schools can support the government’s ‘Levelling Up’ agenda

Business schools already educate one in seven of all UK university students and are engaged with private, public and third sector organisations in research, skills development, innovation and a range of other activities. How can our business schools support the government’s intention to transform the UK through its newly published ‘Levelling Up’ vision?

The phrase “levelling up” has been an almost omnipresent backdrop to conversations in and around government for some time now. Last week saw the publication of the long-awaited White Paper which set out 12 levelling up missions to be delivered nationally by 2030. The Right Honourable Michael Gove MP, Secretary of State for Levelling Up, suggested that the plan would call time on what he described as a “postcode lottery” such that “where you live will no longer determine where you can go”. The full plan can be found here and its scope is certainly ambitious.

If business schools are about business, there are some obvious areas of interest. Pay, employment and productivity feature heavily in the Levelling Up proposals and there are multiple ways in which business schools already shape outcomes in these areas. Globalisation is not new and nor are the opportunities to source many goods and services elsewhere. National economies have adopted positions on a spectrum from low cost, low regulation models to knowledge intensive approaches to value creation. Whilst globalisation offers familiar challenges, the focus on post-pandemic recovery is new. What does a more inclusive, and crucially, more sustainable mode of operating look like?

Answering this complex question becomes even more more challenging because the economic shock of a global pandemic landed in the same timeframe as mainstream recognition of the climate emergency and the regulatory upheaval of Brexit. Our business schools have a big part to play in supporting individuals and businesses in this turbulent context.

The Help to Grow: Management programme aims to develop the skills of those leading our smaller and medium sized businesses. A consortium of over 40 business schools are delivering this programme to business leaders across the whole of the UK with the intention to reach 30,000 people over the next 3 years. The thinking is simple. We need more of our smaller businesses to grow, to innovate and to become more productive such that they create wealth and employment. As they do so, some of these smaller businesses will go on to become the bigger businesses of the future.

Business school research is also central to understanding and calibrating the productivity gap between the UK and other geographies as well as the gaps that exist between regions within the UK. More importantly, business schools are educating current business leaders (e.g. through degree apprenticeships, Executive Education, etc.) and training the next generation of business leaders (with over 350,000 students on business and management programmes). Business schools embed skills, innovation and sustainability in the UK economy at a scale beyond that of any other academic discipline.

Perhaps less obvious is the fact that business schools are not just about business. Our expertise in public and third sector organisations is reflected in the diverse range of impact cases submitted to the most recent national census of research activity (REF2021). From the levelling up proposals, the mission to improve well-being in every area of the UK, to close the gap between the best and weakest performing regions in the UK, and to increase Healthy Life Expectancy by 5 years may not seem goals that would sit naturally within business schools’ spheres of expertise. But research in our business schools helps in at least two ways. First, our research helps understand the ways in which organisations can enhance wellbeing by treating employees fairly, by developing their skills and by creating a sense of community both within and beyond the organisation. Second, those public and charitable organisations that deliver services to enhance wellbeing (e.g. the National Health Service) need to operate efficiently, be well led, and innovate fast enough to reflect the changing needs of those they serve. Whilst business schools do not educate school children they can and should be supporting those running education, health, justice and other organisations to improve their impact and effectiveness.

And finally, technological innovation holds open the possibility that we can meet and overcome the sustainability challenges facing society. The pandemic has forcefully reminded us of the transformative power of technological innovation and public appreciation of science is perhaps at an all-time high.  But it is important to note that the science underpinning vaccine development would be of limited use without the capacity to manufacture and distribute at scale, to organise pop up vaccination centres in every town and city, or even to manage the marketing and messaging required to convince individuals to take up the offer of vaccination.

Business schools have long supported research in other disciplines offering advice on the journey from laboratory to end users, products and services.  Indeed, more than a quarter of the research council funding flowing into business and management already comes from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC).

Researchers in the wider academic community have been heartened by the grow research funding in absolute terms. Many will be further encouraged to see the Levelling Up White Paper shift some of that funding beyond the Greater South East. Yet for business schools there is a particular desire see both funding growth and levelling up framed in terms of stimulating productivity and innovation. It is vital that business schools continue to nurture active partners in science, technology and engineering research in order to shape the commercialisation and application of the knowledge generated.

No-one is likely to argue with the premise of levelling up. The ambitions set out in the Levelling Up White Paper offer opportunities to reinforce existing contributions from our business schools and to craft new ones. We are fortunate to have outstanding business schools at the heart of almost every UK university and it is helpful that those universities cover every region and geography across the whole of the UK. I’m excited to see our business school communities of staff, students and alumni helping deliver greater equality of opportunity and outcomes across the full range of the 12 missions in the Levelling Up vision.


Professor Robert MacIntosh is Faculty Pro-Vice Chancellor for Business and Law at Northumbria University and Chair of the Chartered ABS.