Can universities do more for their towns?

The public wants institutions to do more, but how should leaders empower the civic university

Despite the expansion of higher education, the public’s awareness of universities remains relatively low, a new poll suggests, but more than half want institutions to play a much greater role in their local community. 

A new survey of more than 2,000 people by Public First, on behalf of the UPP Foundation, found low levels of public satisfaction in the contribution institutions make to the local area.

While universities were scored higher than MPs, local government and businesses, just 30% of respondents agreed HEIs are performing their civic responsibilities well. 

Despite this negative assessment, public faith in universities appears strong; 59% want HEIs to play a greater role in the local economy and 50% think they can and should be involved in the delivery of local government services. 

Our post-election polling points to a divided Britain
– Richard Brabner, UPP Foundation

“It is clear that there is a real appetite amongst universities to support ‘left behind’ places in their regions,” said Richard Brabner, director of the UPP Foundation, “and the public is extremely positive about the role universities could play too.

“Our post-election polling points to a divided Britain and underlines the need for the government to double down on its focus on towns to help ‘level up the country’. 

“Organisations embedded in their communities will be key to revitalising towns. Local institutions and civil society should be supported by government to deliver this agenda.” 

The survey was conducted as part of a UPP Foundation project, aimed at developing a role for universities in the government’s ‘levelling-up’ agenda. A final report from the charitable foundation will be published in the spring.

Although the poll suggests high levels of public trust in universities to make a difference, over a third have never visited their local HEI; this figure rises to 41% for those in the C2DE socio-economic group. Responding to this divide, Mr Brabner accepted “there is much for our sector to do to engage all parts of our society”.

“To grow trust and support, universities should be particularly focussed on demonstrating their public value to areas which do not benefit from having a university on their doorstep,” he continued.

The poll suggests people in the south-east (23%), south-west (24%) and East Anglia (23%) are least likely to think their universities are doing a good job locally, with people in Scotland (44%), Yorkshire and the Humber (37%) and the north-east (35%) more likely to see their HEIs as engaged locally. 

Another key finding of the Public First research was the public’s perception of graduate retention rates. By a majority of more than 2:1, the public would prefer graduates to return to their local area to work instead of migrating to big cities. 

Civic university agreements

Many universities already have an active civic university agenda. Last year, the UPP Foundation’s Civic University Commission (CUC) recommended universities create contracts with their local area. The foundation is now seeking to appoint a university host for the Civic University Network, a project to support the work of its commission.

Recently ousted universities minister Chris Skidmore was a vocal supporter of the Civic University Commission.

The commission’s proposal for individual Civic University Agreements (CUA) was backed by 50 vice-chancellors, including Prof Liz Barnes of Staffordshire University.

Prof Ieuan Ellis, Staffordshire’s pro vice-chancellor for place and engagement, said his job title alone was an indication of the “very high prominence” the university puts on its work beyond the campus perimeter. 

Prof Ellis said Staffordshire University was using the recommendations of the CUC to write a CUA which “builds upon a lot of work already ongoing here”, adding: “Prior to the CUA, we ran a Connected Communities Framework which articulated the different ways in which our university benefits our town, but also how our town benefits our staff and students.” 

The university hopes to publish a CUA this summer, a ‘living document’ Prof Ellis describes as part of a “continuing conversation” with the university’s local town. But, he said, the university will be honest about what it can achieve in Stoke-on-Trent.

The university creates 2,750 jobs and contributes £120 million gross value added (GVA) to the local economy, but the West Midland’s town presents a particularly challenging environment for senior leaders. 

Stoke is an area where only 28% of people enter higher education. Over 50% of the population live in the 20% of neighbourhoods deemed the most deprived in the UK. 

In the face of this socio-economic deprivation, Prof Ellis described Staffordshire University’s diverse student intake as a key indicator of its civic engagement. 

“Over 60% of our students are commuters, a very high percentage are mature learners and many present multiple indices of deprivation. These are not individuals who would necessarily send off a Ucas form to other universities. We are their local university.

“Many of our students are juggling childcare and work commitments, and we provide flexible and accessible education to enable them to build their confidence, competence and become more socially mobile,” he continued. 

Despite this challenging socio-economic picture, Prof Ellis said the university had mapped out a course to step in: “We work with employers who help design our curriculums and internships, and we encourage them to employ our graduates.

“We’ve worked hard to help shape the local industrial strategy and as a digital- and computing-focused university, we are devising ways to support our graduates develop and run their own businesses. 

“We want to create space on our campuses for businesses and start-ups to set themselves up here, which will offer a clear career pipeline for our graduates to work in those enterprises and stay in the area. Otherwise there will be a huge brain drain to London.”

Read more: MIT of the north: experts pour cold water on government’s proposals

The civic university: demonstrating value

Reflecting on a speech delivered last week by Universities UK president Prof Julia Buckingham on the importance of demonstrating university value, Prof Ellis cited metrics as a challenge for progress. 

Universities UK president Prof Julia Buckingham, who is also vice-chancellor of Brunel University London, said graduate salaries are no measure of a university.

“As a modern university, we educate social workers, teachers, police officers – all of whom are not going to have high salaries,” he said. In her speech, Prof Buckingham criticised the use of longitudinal educational outcome (LEO) data, because it makes graduate salaries a marker of success. It is a critique Prof Ellis echoed. 

There may be a contradiction in government policy, because there is a stark contradiction in putting so much emphasis on salary alone
– Prof Ieuan Ellis, Staffordshire University

“There may be a contradiction in government policy, because there is a stark contradiction in putting so much emphasis on salary alone. We need a basket of indicators. We already have whole raft of indicators in the TEF, REF and KEF that we could use. 

“Some value is easy to measure, like, for example, how many jobs a university creates and how much it procures from local suppliers, but the hardest thing to measure is the social value it adds, so we need to develop a case study approach. 

“For example, Staffordshire University published a report last year on poverty across the region. We engaged local citizens and trained them as community researchers. That report was extremely impactful because it relates lived experiences of poverty, as well as articulating in the language of local people the barriers to breaking out of poverty. That Hardship Commission report was used by the local MP, Gareth Snell, during prime minister’s questions, in a direct challenge to the PM.” 

The report subsequently led to funding from Research England to continue the work and will become a REF impact case study for the university. “It was, I think, a powerful way of demonstrating some of the things that we are doing,” Prof Ellis continued.

Prof Ellis said Staffordshire University wants to help more students set up businesses on campus.

After a 35-year career in higher education, Prof Ellis described the last five as the most intensely scrutinised. 

“Universities are, quite rightly, under an intense spotlight. We are regulated to the absolute hilt by the Office for Students and others. We are spending enormous amounts of time providing evidence of multiple different metrics, which places an enormous focus on certain achievements. League table positions and reputations depend on hitting those metrics. 

“The focus hasn’t been on wider civic work and, in fact, I think it’s probably moved a number of universities to focus relentlessly on the things that we are measured by.” In Prof Ellis’s opinion, devising new metrics is not the answer. 

“We don’t want to do less teaching so we can do more civic work. Running through our teaching, research and knowledge exchange is our civic engagement. I think it’s about changing the perception and narrative around what being a civic university is about,” he concluded.

The public’s priorities: the NHS

In January, the University of Nottingham and Nottingham Trent University announced a new civic university partnership, which aims to bolster economic prosperity, educational opportunity, environmental sustainability, and improvements to health, wellbeing and culture in the city, through enhanced community engagement. 

Later this year, the partners will announce their own Universities for Nottingham CUA, establishing a programme of collectively agreed and publicly shared projects with their partners.

Through the initiative, Nottingham’s two universities will spend £33m on activities to get more people into higher education and support them whilst there. 

Read more: Nottingham University launches Institute of Policy and Engagement

Alex Favier from the University of Nottingham said the university and its neighbour, Nottingham Trent, were joining forces to leverage their combined influence.

Alex Favier, director of global and political affairs at University of Nottingham, said the initiative “will improve the way we work with each other and our local partners to help change the lives of local people for the better”, adding: “Our local area faces significant challenges including skills shortages, educational aspiration and the productivity gap.”

The UPP Foundation survey revealed the public’s priorities; 48% of voters put accessing local NHS services and reversing the decline of their high street as urgent concerns. 

Nottingham University is already a key NHS partner. “In the last five years for example,” said Mr Favier, “we have delivered more than 250 research projects addressing local healthcare challenges in partnership with local NHS providers including hospitals and GPs.

“Drawing from the recommendations of the UPP Foundation Civic University Commission, we will use this as a foundation for a programme of renewed, focused and collaborative working and create a Universities for Nottingham Civic Agreement later this year.” 

Read more: Knowledge exchange at the University of Nottingham

The public’s priorities: the high street

As for high streets, the Institute of Place Management (IPM) at Manchester Metropolitan University (MMU) is a leading centre of research. Official statistics suggest 70,000 jobs were lost in the retail industry in 2018 alone, and the government has now pledged £1.6bn to tackle this spiralling decline.

The IMP was contracted by government to report to an expert panel tasked with helping high streets. It has since been hired to run the High Street Task Force, a five-year £8m government contract.

The institute’s chair, Prof Cathy Parker, said her team’s work focused on working closely with local people: “Universities have got to go out and talk to people. It’s too much of a barrier to even find your way around the university; no one’s just going to stumble across expertise. Universities must package their work up and take it out to people to present our research findings.” 

Prof Cathy Parker has helped inform government policy and expert panels with her research on high streets

Her work on high streets has seen Prof Parker present her research findings to local community group meetings in pubs and community centres. “Our review for government said it’s not just about giving people money. The people responding to this UPP Foundation survey have said the same thing; people need support with research, skills and knowledge. The funding on its own isn’t enough,” Prof Parker added. 

The Task Force is offering direct help to 160 high streets and aims to assist many hundreds more with online seminars and training programmes. Prof Parker suggests universities like MMU, as a former polytechnic, have always had “a supportive regional agenda”, adding: “I think we knew about impact before it entered the parlance of UK academia”.

The more relevant researchers are, the less they’re going to fit neatly into any one research centre
– Prof Cathy Parker, Institute of Place Management

Prof Parker said academia should reframe its approach if it is to develop a civic agenda: “I think the more relevant you are to the outside world the less what you’re doing is going to fit neatly into a discipline or a department. I think that is something senior leaders can sometimes struggle with. The work we do at IMP spans geography, business, marketing, economics, sociology and criminology. We have all that expertise in our team because that’s the reality of a high street. 

“If you’re going to be relevant to people, you have to understand that very complicated problems in the real world don’t fit nicely back into the university structure. Senior leaders need to understand that the more relevant researchers are, the less they’re going to fit neatly into any one research centre.”

Prof Parker suggests academia needs to become more multidisciplinary if it is to demonstrate impact on real-world problems.

She added: “I think there is sometimes an obstinate, top down approach in universities that tries to structure and put order on things. For example, by changing the name of a group of researchers makes it look, to the outside, like those people don’t exist anymore. If you google the Institute of something or other and all of a sudden, they’ve been renamed and put into another research group, that brand and reputation has been lost.”

Funding, she said, has not been an issue: “Because what we do is relevant, we find people will pay for that relevance, whether that’s commercially or research money. If you’re tackling society’s problems, someone will fund you.”

With new faces in the departments for education and business, energy and industrial strategy, can a strengthened civic university agenda translate into government policy – particularly given its focus on ‘place’ and ‘levelling-up’.

Read more: Manchester Met’s Grow Café sells over 1,000 meat-free meals per week


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