More than 30 of Britain’s leading universities have reaffirmed their commitment to their local communities by pledging to put the economy and quality of life in their home towns and cities at the top of their list of priorities.
The institutions – which include Keele and Staffordshire universities – are committing to produce a Civic University Agreement in partnership with local government and other major institutions in their area.
The new agreement is a key recommendation in a report published on February 12 by the Civic University Commission set up by the UPP Foundation. The commission was chaired by the former Head of the Civil Service, Lord Kerslake and its members included Stoke-on-Trent and Staffordshire Local Enterprise Partnership chairman David Frost CBE.
The report sets out how universities have the capability, opportunity and responsibility to further support the places where they are based to solve some of their most pressing and major problems.
These issues range from helping local business adapt to technological change, to boosting the health of local people, improving education for school pupils and adult learners, and training and developing new civic leaders in every field from politics to the arts.
The report aims to help universities build on the excellent work that many of them are already carrying out in these areas, working alongside councils, employers, cultural institutions, schools and further education colleges.
David Frost commented: “I am very pleased to have worked as a Commissioner on this major piece of work. As chairman of Stoke-on-Trent and Staffordshire LEP I am very much aware of the importance of working with all our local partners across the private and public sectors to ensure that our area is a great place to live, work, invest and do business.
“Universities have a key role to play in creating a growing economy and helping our local communities to thrive, and this report will help us to build on the close working relationship we have already developed with both Keele and Staffordshire universities.”
Lord Kerslake said: “The deep economic and social changes that are happening in Britain today have, alongside Brexit, made the civic role of universities even more vital to the places they are located in.
“The civic universities of the Victorian era were founded as expressions of civic pride, and as a way of sharing knowledge and opportunity at a time of rapid change. We are now entering a new industrial revolution when it will be even more vital that knowledge is accessible in as many communities as possible.
“It is not just people outside university grounds who will benefit. Universities are under unprecedented challenge and need to find a broader base of support. Universities need to be part of a community which is engaged, supportive and shares objectives.”
Richard Brabner, director of the UPP Foundation, said: “Universities have the ability to make a real difference to the places they are located in through reinvigorating their civic role. But this is not just a responsibility, it’s also an opportunity.
“This is an important report with concrete recommendations that all universities will want to consider. The UPP Foundation created the commission to look at what it means to be a Civic University in the 21st Century and ask local people what they wanted from their local institution.
“We know that many universities want to build engagement with the community around them. It’s excellent news that such an impressive list of institutions has already signed up and the UPP Foundation strongly endorses the report’s findings.”
The report warns that there is a danger that any cut in the resources available to universities – for example, a reduction in student fees without the deficit being made up in funding from the Treasury – will mean that work already being done in this area – like help provided to schools and further education colleges – could be slashed.
The report was based on evidence-gathering sessions held across England, with input from civic leaders. The authors also commissioned opinion polling and focus groups in cities and towns to hear from the public what they wanted from their local university.
This research discovered communities welcome opportunities to connect with universities, and there is great local pride about how universities put their hometown on the map.
The report says that the Government needs to fundamentally review policies to support further civic engagement by universities. Until the recent creation of an Industrial Strategy, government has for many decades been too indifferent about places within the United Kingdom – contributing to some regions falling behind.
But universities can take a vital step at this pivotal time 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. All this needs to be based on listening to the local community.
The Civic University Agreement signed by 31 universities includes four key points:
- Understanding local populations, and asking them what they want. Analysis of their place and people’s priorities are essential.
- Understanding themselves and what they are able to offer.
- Working with other local anchor institutions, businesses and community organisations to agree where the short, medium and long-term opportunities and problems lie for communities. Linking with local authorities and other local plans, such as the local industrial strategy is particularly important.
- A clear set of priorities. A process of agreeing clear priorities will therefore be necessary and, again, this is where collaboration and aligning resources with local authorities, LEPs, NHS bodies and the like can help to identify the live issues that universities can most usefully help with.
Download the full report here