Honorary Professor of Economics and Commercial Secretary to the Treasury, Lord Jim O'Neill of Gatley, sits down to discuss the University's driving force behind the Northern Powerhouse.
On the windowsill of Jim O'Neill's Treasury office sits a framed, signed piece of graphene. O'Neill, the world-renowned economist who has risen from the Stockport suburb of Gatley to the higher echelons of government, may now be nestled in the heart of London's own political powerhouse but on the fourth floor of HM Treasury, Manchester remains all around him.
In his in-tray lies a briefing document on phase two of the Northern Powerhouse – the flagship economic policy to re-galvanise the north of England; on his desk is a 'Love United, Hate Glazer' mug (he famously led a bid to oust the football club's owners in 2010) and, in a room down the corridor, hang photographs from his hometown.
O'Neill is the former Goldman Sachs Asset Management chief economist who coined the term BRICs - the acronym (Brazil, Russia, India, China) that, in 2001, came to represent a shift to the world's emerging economies. He may have travelled the world but it is Greater Manchester that he has taken to the heart of government.
Manchester, he says, needs to get its mojo back - and the University is right in the engine room of a new, national economic focus.
"What really stands out about Manchester, and has done from the off, is how together everybody is," he explains, at ease in an armchair in the centre of his bright office; his Treasury red box in the corner. "One of the strengths about the University, particularly under Nancy's leadership, is that it's in the city's DNA - with the council - and it adds to this ease of looking at Greater Manchester as a joined-up place where everyone is going in the same direction."
This, says the honorary professor of economics, is what made Greater Manchester a more 'relaxed' proposition to government when George Osborne signed the landmark 'DevoManc' deals with council leaders last year, devolving budgets for transport, housing, skills and health and social care as a starter.
O'Neill is widely credited as an architect of the Northern Powerhouse, of which devolution is a cornerstone, having championed the cause when he chaired the 2014 City Growth Commission.
The idea is to finally see off the decline Greater Manchester has suffered since manufacturing packed up and left town.
Whether the Northern Powerhouse succeeds will depend on today's students
If the University's collaborative approach has helped the region get this far, its academics and students can play a big role in determining its success, he says.
"The top universities have to really keep their prime focus as their standard of academic excellence but I think, in the modern urban world, those that continue to do that and do their bit in the broader economy are the ones to admire - and I think Manchester has got that."
He adds: "Because of its academic excellence and free-thinkers, the University can play a great role in criticising or encouraging Manchester's part in the Northern Powerhouse. We certainly don't have the sole wisdom on the execution of the Northern Powerhouse."
On the wall behind him hangs a grid of pop art prints - the pound, the dollar, the euro, the yen – which feels fitting as he discusses how a reason for the north's decline in a globalising world is that it lacks an advantage; nothing that can withstand the ebb and flow of the global economy. O'Neill believes that graphene - the revolutionary 2D material isolated at the University - has the potential to change that, turning world class research into big commercial and employment success. It carries high hopes for both Greater Manchester and UK PLC.
"What happens to graphene in the next decade is a huge test of the interplay between Manchester and the University in the Northern Powerhouse" he says.
"If we were sitting here in 2026, if graphene hasn't contributed in a significant way to Manchester's value added it would be disappointing."
He points to Boston and Hamburg as examples of places that, like the north of England, were written off but reversed their fortunes.
"I've had the good luck and fortune of having travelled all over the world. I've seen other cities in some parts of the world that were supposedly never going to be able to rediscover their mojo and have done it.
"If you've got the right ambition, the right aspiration, the right focus, you don't have to just accept this decline."
"Almost certainly," he adds, "why Boston has done so well is their incredible universities." Spin-offs to commercialise research helped to drive an economic revival there. Retaining top students, getting them excited and incentivised to stay here after graduation, can afford Manchester the same opportunity.
"Whether the Northern Powerhouse succeeds will depend on today's students and even younger people," says O'Neill, his trinkets from Manchester and China all around, his feet kicked out in front of him at the chair where he first sat and pondered the north's 'advantage' when he joined government eight months ago. "Students at the university - they should all be thinking about how they can make it a success.
"It's a nice dilemma for the government that the whole brand of the Northern Powerhouse is like BRICs – people don't stop talking about it. If you're a student in the middle of it all: 'wow'. Unless the younger generation gets sufficiently excited about it then we won't reverse so many things that have gone on for so long."