Investing in engagement

Partnerships and community engagement are key to fuelling the regeneration for universities, says Jonathan Nicholls

University students now wield greater influence and choice than ever before. Tuition fees are at their highest ever level. The Government’s legal reforms have put the student interest right at the centre of higher education. Competition to attract students from the UK and overseas is fierce. 

According to the latest financial forecasts, English universities expect to spend more than £19 billion on capita projects by 2020. Borrowing in the same period to pay for some of this expenditure will be £12 billion – 35% relative to total university income. Large chunks of this money will be spent on improving facilities for students to meet these new demands and out-compete rivals, yet university expansion and increased student numbers are not welcomed by everyone.

Universities are part of the civic landscape and they need to demonstrate the value and benefits they bring to their town or city. These benefits cannot all be expressed by the reiteration of the economic value they bring or by the number of jobs they create, even when these are the result of the superb advances made in precision engineering or the life sciences, for example. Increasingly, it seems that some universities have lost sight of the original civic mission which was the impetus for their foundation. 

Universities are part of the civic landscape and they need to demonstrate the value and benefits they bring to their town or city

The importance of realigning with this original civic mission is being recognised across the higher education sector, with a number of organisations conducting studies into how universities engage with local communities in the 21stcentury. Successful partnerships between universities and their communities is more than just about skills, new buildings and fine architecture. It is also about cultural and social advantage for everyone – place-making and belonging.  

There are numerous projects underway across the UK through which universities are strengthening links with local communities, whilst meeting the needs of their students and local residents. The Hive in Worcester, a jointly-funded library and resource centre for the city and the university and Birmingham University’s new sports centre and 50m swimming pool are both examples of schemes underway at established institutions that demonstrate a tangible benefit to the local community. Elsewhere, the planned new university for Hereford has strong support from local people because it will regenerate the city’s townscape and economy, be part of its future, and bring opportunities and new jobs.  

Partnerships between the public sector, the private sector, universities – which may have surplus land or brownfield sites – and other actors like housing associations and the NHS, are vital and are sometimes the only way of bringing forward new schemes that meet the needs of everyone.

Strong principles of partnership can be seen in a major university-led development in North West Cambridge. The end result will provide 3,000 new homes – half of which are affordable – student residences, university and private-sector workplaces, and community amenities from a supermarket to street food vendors, senior living facilities to a primary school. One particularly innovative feature is the joint charitable trust between the City Council and the university to run the community hall for all the residents of Cambridge.

Project planning to bring forward much-needed regeneration centred on universities can be a dynamic process that has the potential to transform our towns and cities

Elsewhere, in Leicestershire, the New Lubbesthorpe project is setting new standards for complementary partnership working. Like the Cambridge scheme, this is also an urban extension project, and shares some similarities in how community interests will be protected going forward. Innovative arrangements have been made to provide site management through annuities that will ensure a long-sighted approach to the environment and its features for the residents of the 4,250 planned homes.  

Highlighting partnerships like these examples and demonstrating the benefits they can bring to a local community can help convince the wider public that universities can actually enrich the lives of the majority and are not just the focal point for large transient student populations that are in a town but not part of it. Master planning should include strong emphases on the wider benefits of a planned development and should be consulted on widely and comprehensively, beyond statutory requirements. This can be hard slog involving long evenings and open meetings with local residents and their representative groups.

Universities need to invest in engagement and services that develop civic responsibility and pride in their students and staff. Students can be wonderful ambassadors and generous with their time working on volunteer projects and social enterprises; these instincts must be given full support.

Project planning to bring forward much-needed regeneration centred on universities can be a dynamic process that has the potential to transform our towns and cities. The best examples are inclusive of partners who share the same ambition. Together they can ensure that what is built has the beating heart and the healthy physiology of a community in which everyone – students, staff, and residents – are active and respected.

Jonathan Nicholls is director of strategic and policy services for education and member of the Projects and Infrastructure group at law firm, Shakespeare Martineau.

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