Civic universities: can HEIs drive change in local communities?

Richard Brabner, director of UPP Foundation, says governments should create a dedicated ‘Civic University Fund’

The story of how cities have developed is in many cases closely linked to the development of their universities.

For example, in Britain the first universities were started almost 900 years ago, and the country has experienced the growth of different types of institutions during various political and industrial phases: from the Victorian ‘redbrick’ universities of Manchester and Birmingham, to the expansion of the new modernist universities of the technological revolution of the 1960s and then the transition of polytechnics from 1992 onwards.

Now in the 21st century, we see the creation of a knowledge economy with a flourishing sector. Universities currently contribute over £95bn to the economy, supporting one million jobs, and educating over two million students, including 450,000 from around the world.

The global picture

Globally, the HE market is growing by 12% a year, with rapid growth in Asia and the Americas, meaning ever-increasing competition for students, staff, and funding. The coming wave of automation and reindustrialisation will offer many opportunities but also leave many behind and isolated, and this is where universities increasingly have been assisting in regenerating urban areas and providing new jobs.

The civic role that universities play – recognising the contribution they make to their host towns and cities – has therefore never been more important. In many communities, the university is the centre of civic life. The activities that this includes can be hugely varied – helping local business adapt to technological change, working alongside schools, supporting economic local growth and culture, and training and developing new community leaders in every field from politics to the arts.

Now in the 21st century, we see the creation of a knowledge economy with a flourishing sector

But while many universities have a proud civic history, and the breadth of civic activity undertaken by almost any university is impressive, relatively few have what we might call a strategic approach to civic engagement. Few conduct a robust analysis of the needs of their local communities and develop a civic mission to overcome these challenges, where the idea of ‘left-behind’ communities and regions is a powerful force. Alongside being global hubs, universities also have an opportunity and even a responsibility to address needs that are closer to home.

The emphasis on looking beyond the local community is not just a choice that universities have made. They have been encouraged by governments that have not followed through on commitments to the idea of ‘place’. So, this challenge – how universities can reinvigorate their civic mission for the 21st century – was the question the UPP Foundation Civic University Commission asked over a 12-month inquiry in 2018–2019. The inquiry concluded that it is not enough just to be civically engaged with a list of local projects that the university supports and local committees that university staff sit on.

What should ‘civic’ mean to a university?

Governments should create a dedicated ‘Civic University Fund’ focused on how universities can support this, with a priority towards more disadvantaged areas of a country

For an institution to be truly a civic university, it was believed important to place the civic role alongside teaching and research as one of the core purposes of the university. This will, of course, require resources, and here both universities and government should play their part.

In an era where the UK government is talking the talk on the importance of place-based approaches to policy, and supporting left-behind communities, governments should create a dedicated ‘Civic University Fund’ focused on how universities can support this, with a priority towards more disadvantaged areas of a country. But universities themselves are autonomous institutions – who have been around and will outlast any one government – and so they should also recognise the importance of this role.

The central recommendation from The UPP Commission was that universities can take a vital first step by adopting the Commission’s idea of a Civic University Agreement, setting out what they will offer local communities and which major local strategic needs they will seek to address. This needs to be based on listening to the local community and working in partnership with further education colleges, local government, major employers, and the creative and cultural institutions.

Universities should also think hard about where they can most make an impact in areas such as widening participation and access and through their role as employers.

Universities have an irreplaceable and unique role in ensuring that their host communities thrive, and a need to recognise that their own success is bound up with the success of the places that gave birth to them. 

Richard Brabner is director of UPP Foundation.

Read more: The European University: How universities can save the European idea


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