Universities for Nottingham: pioneering civic agreement launches post-Covid ambitions

Inaugural city deal marks turning point in the energised civic university agenda

Nottingham’s two universities have announced a civic agreement which sets out how they aim to support the region’s economy and communities.

The city’s inaugural civic university agreement (CUA) is the first of its type in the UK.

The city-wide deal brings together the University of Nottingham and Nottingham Trent University with the city and county’s local authorities, NHS trusts, integrated care system and local enterprise partnership.

Following the launch of the joint university initiative in January, the completed agreement codifies local strategies to target educational opportunity, economic prosperity, health and wellbeing, and environmental sustainability in Nottinghamshire.

The blueprint contains 14 priority initiatives that will be delivered by the universities in collaboration with the other deal’s other partners during the next academic year. 

“This civic agreement is underpinned by a recognition that the two universities are integrally linked to the place and people of Nottingham and Nottinghamshire. The universities enhance the life of the city culturally, economically and socially and the city and county enhance the lives of the universities’ staff and students through their built and natural environment, their culture and their hospitality,” the opening statement begins.

Civic agreements were proposed by the national UPP Foundation Civic University Commission, which published its final recommendations in February last year. Nearly 60 universities have committed to the idea, but Nottingham and NTU have won the race to get their agreement published. The two higher education partners accelerated completion of their deal in response to the coronavirus crisis.

Forged in the aftermath of the pandemic, the “refocused” Universities for Nottingham Civic Agreement pays the greatest attention to economic revival and job protection. The universities report holding “400 hours of conversation” with “over 150 local partners and colleagues” in the 18 months before the plan was drafted. 

As part of its efforts to support the fragile economy recovery, the universities have pledged to “realign business support programmes”. This agenda includes SME support programmes, projects to reduce the graduate “brain drain” and support for the county’s proposed zero-carbon growth hubs and freeport. With the support of a new marketing campaign for Nottingham, the universities hope their combined fundraising will generate more inward investment into the city. The plan trails plans for “a major new joint medical technology offer to business” that university chiefs hope will make Nottingham a med-tech hotspot.

Today, we acknowledge the integral link between our universities and the city and county we are proud to call home. We are bound by a shared vision to enhance prosperity, opportunity, sustainability, health and wellbeing for current and future generations in our region
Prof Shearer West, University of Nottingham

With the Knowledge Exchange Transfer (KEF) framework soon to be introduced, and a greater ministerial focus on place-based funding and local and regional university partnerships, civic university agreements could shape different institutional decision-making. Although the Civic University Commission report published last year concluded there was “much enthusiasm” for civic engagement in universities, it questioned whether members of the public benefited from that passion.

“As three-year degrees for 18-year-olds have become the dominant model, the number of ‘adult learners’ – often the majority in the first civic universities – have declined rapidly. Local research is often considered second or third best,” the report noted. “And as universities have become magnets for global students and massive research programmes, their connection to their place and the people can sometimes be called into question: how are the people in a place benefiting from the university success story?”

The commissioners added that many universities “have been relatively dismissive of place – at least in their rhetoric. They have seen themselves as increasingly global first, national second, and local third”.

Support for local further education and teacher training make the list of 14 priorities, as does the formation of a local SAGE-style panel of experts “to provide high-quality and evidence-based policy advice, on a ‘what works’ approach” for the region. 

The universities have also pledged investment in low and zero-carbon infrastructure to turn their campuses into “living laboratories” for new eco-friendly trials and initiatives.

Prof Shearer West, vice-chancellor of the University of Nottingham, said: “We are at a critical point in global history with our communities experiencing the devastating social and economic repercussions of the pandemic. Now, more than ever, we need to work together to drive local recovery and renewal.

“Today, we acknowledge the integral link between our universities and the city and county we are proud to call home. We are bound by a shared vision to enhance prosperity, opportunity, sustainability, health and wellbeing for current and future generations in our region.”

Nottingham Trent vice-chancellor Prof Edward Peck said: “We shared our ambition for collaboration across both universities and our partners at the launch of Universities for Nottingham in January. At the time we could not have envisaged just how essential that collaboration would be to helping our region recover from one of the toughest global economic and social crises it would face.

“Today’s Civic Agreement is the result of the universities and our partners pulling together to establish not just what we can achieve together, but how we will set about doing so as we help drive local recovery and strive to build back better.”

As part of its plans to boost civic university work in the UK, the UPP Foundation awarded seed funding to Sheffield Hallam University to host the newly launched Civic University Network, which will drive innovation and knowledge-sharing between higher eduction providers.

Read more: Fund ‘civic army’ to tackle youth unemployment, charity bosses tell government

Related comment: Collaboration is key for universities to survive Covid-19

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