Rising to the university challenge

The North stands on the brink of a bright new industrial era – if it can work together to harness the full power of the revolution that is gathering pace, says Dr Annette Bramley.

The director of the N8 Research Partnership of Northern universities believes it is vital that the Northern Powerhouse achieves the maximum benefit from the digitalisation and the ‘Fourth Industrial Revolution’.

And she sees its world-leading educational institutions and the research work they are involved in playing a vital role in ensuring the region is at the forefront of that revolution in the way we work and make things.

The N8 is made up of the universities of Durham, Lancaster, Leeds, Liverpool, Manchester, Newcastle, Sheffield, and York. It aims to promote deeper collaboration between universities, business and society.

Dr Annette Bramley

Dr Bramley joined the partnership as director in January last year, having previously worked for the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council.

She says: “There are lots fantastic assets in the North of England, from its people to its diversity of environment.

“There is a lot of fantastic science and innovation going on within the region’s universities and also in business and the private sector. The Northern Powerhouse has enormous potential.

She adds: The Fourth Industrial Revolution is both a massive opportunity and a threat to the North.

“The threat is if we don’t seize the opportunity and think about the kind of businesses we want and fail to take advantage of the opportunities to build and grow those knowledge-based businesses here in the North.”

“It requires businesses and universities to work together with the education system to make sure that people here have the skills to pick up the innovation and run with it.”

Dr Bramley says lifelong learning will become increasingly important in this new digital landscape and it will have an impact on how universities deliver teaching and how businesses train their staff.

She says points to the work of the Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre (AMRC) in Sheffield as a “world-leading centre of innovation and excellence”.

And she adds that Greater Manchester’s devolution also offers great opportunities for innovation in the health sector.

Innovation sharing is key and the N8 works to “add value” to the activities of the individual universities.

Dr Bramley says that the N8 universities’ combined turnover – more than £4bn – is larger than that of all the football clubs of the Premier League put together.

And she says: “People don’t appreciate the scale of it; these universities are an absolutely massive asset for the North.

“The N8 is recognised as a powerful brand, particularly outside the UK. Also we speak with one voice to government.”

Looking at Northern Powerhouse priorities she points to the need for better connectivity between its towns and cities as crucial if the region is to attract and retain highly–skilled people.

In a prime example of the collaborative approach spelled out by Dr Bramley, scientists from Leeds will lead a new research network of northern universities looking to find new ways to rapidly decarbonise UK transport.

The DecarboN8 network will focus on tackling surface transport emissions, which form 26 per cent of the UK’s greenhouse gas emissions.

The network, worth £1.25m and funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), is made up of experts from the N8.

Prof Greg Marsden from the Institute for Transport Studies at Leeds will be leading the project.

Transport for the North is also involved in the network and senior evidence and analysis officer Lucy Humphreys says: “We believe the network could offer a step-change in how we approach the decarbonisation challenge across the North, the UK and beyond.”