University civic engagement: UPP Foundation identifies public priorities

Universities are widely perceived to be distant and indifferent by focus group members surveyed by polling company Public First

University civic engagement should focus on the public’s ‘levelling-up’ priorities, such as town centre regeneration, local jobs and the NHS, according to a new report from the higher education charity UPP Foundation.

The latest report from the independent charity warns universities that civic engagement should extend across a regional ‘orbit’ beyond the immediate university environs. The UPP Foundation recommends universities prioritise supporting town centres, local employment and the NHS while improving educational attainment and the innovation sector in the local area. Polling by Public First suggests these five areas are the public’s primary demands of the ‘levelling-up’ agenda, the UPP Foundation added.

The director of the UPP Foundation Richard Brabner said the report demonstrates that “universities can be at the heart of a civic renaissance”, adding: “It’s clear that voters are highly supportive of universities, but universities also need to meet voters’ priorities – on schools, on the NHS, and on the renewal of the high street”.

Distant and indifferent: the public’s perception of universities

The report’s conclusions are based on surveys conducted by Public First: a national opinion poll of 2,000 people and six focus groups in the towns of Dudley, Oldham and Darlington, which were selected because they have tertiary education provision, but no university, and are within the ‘orbit’ of large and productive local economies. They are, the report concludes, prime examples of ‘left behind’ towns in the post-industrial era.

Based on the feedback from the focus groups, the report argued: “The public opinion work is clear that local people know of their universities – even if they are more hazy on exactly what they do, and the majority have never been inside one. Local populations are also clear on what they want to see in their towns and their priorities for regeneration.”

The report continued: “It is reasonable to point out that universities, unlike the local police, the local council or housing association, or the local NHS Trust, do not have many direct levers with regards to cutting crime, improving social housing, or addressing public health, respectively.

“But equally, it would be wrong to conclude that universities have no locus on these issues. They have significant indirect levers as an anchor institution – as a purchaser, as an employer, as a hotbed of research, as a provider of accommodation, and as a convenor of students.”

According to the survey, the biggest local issues for the public are the cost of housing, access to local NHS services, the degeneration of the high street, levels of crime and poor public transport.

The report highlights examples of university civic engagement, like supporting local amenities and cultural facilities, that may help to regenerate a town centre. It also cites the power of a university to create and support jobs, as well as contribute to a pool of skilled graduates in the local area, as two further examples of how universities support regional economies.

The report further argues universities should consider how to boost the educational attainment of adults and young people, through upskilling and classes, and consider how to share research and knowledge with communities and locally-based businesses and charities.

But the focus groups suggest many believe universities contribute towards a brain drain in many of Britain’s communities and do not do enough to educate adults of all ages. There was an “overwhelming impression” of “distance and indifference” when the participants were asked to sum up their views of universities. The report summarised the public’s perception of universities as “self-interested institutions, rather than civic and social actors…. similar to businesses with a bottom line to look out for, rather than as the public-private hybrid.”
Read more: Cities and universities team up on plan for economic recovery


  • Government should ringfence some of the Towns Fund for high street regeneration in local town centres. “Universities would be able to bid in partnership with local government for this funding for new capital, on the condition that these are placed in town centres and universities situate some of their teaching, research and community activity there as an anchor”, the report suggested.
  • Universities should develop a “tutoring and mentoring scheme” that is developed nationally but designed locally to meet the educational needs of the local community.
  • Research funding should prioritise work that benefits the local area and its communities.
  • Universities should be designated “as a primary ‘surge capacity’ provider” to the NHS and the wider public sector. Universities could build and maintain surplus capacity for teaching and research, which could be redeployed at short notice for councils and the NHS.
  • The Shared Prosperity Fund should support a major interdisciplinary research programme looking at ‘levelling up’ post-industrial towns. Through this research, universities should identify work the sector can lead.

Lifetime skills guarantee 

The UPP Foundation also today released a study which analysed the risk the pandemic poses to millions of jobs. The report concluded that at least 5m jobs are at risk from a Covid-driven economic recession, but that up 80% of those most at risk of unemployment will not be eligible for the prime minister’s flagship ‘lifetime skills guarantee’.

Public First surveyed 1,000 adults who do not have a degree; 37% said they would like to gain one, including 57% of 18–24-year-olds, 50% of 25–34-year-olds, and 39% of 35–44-year-olds.

Mr Brabner argued: “The prime minister’s choice of a Level 3 qualification in a specific field – most likely to be chosen based on labour market shortage – is likely to appeal to only a tiny fraction of the 3.1m individuals at risk of unemployment identified in our report – and be open to even fewer.”

The report argued the government should widen the scope of the ‘lifetime skills guarantee’ to level 4 and 5 courses and help universities to work closely in partnership with FE colleges to provide training at higher skills levels.

Header image via Flickr.

Read more: Chris Skidmore to join UPP Foundation

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