Having waited so long for the Government’s long-promised Levelling Up White Paper, more and more universities and colleges are refocusing their strategies on the learning and skills needs of businesses, public services and communities in their localities. PA’s latest survey of university leaders shows over 60% giving their highest priority to student recruitment from within their local communities, and 45% putting similar emphasis on supporting local economic and workforce needs. They are in effect taking up the challenges of levelling up in their own geographical backyards. But can universities that have spent the past decade focused on success in global markets for students and research funding reinvent themselves as agents of local social and economic transformation?
The conditions for success for universities as change-makers in place-based prosperity are radically different from those that drive competitive success in national and international academic markets. They entail literally reframing the raison d’être of the university, and reorienting its supporting educational, research and business operations. It is a daunting prospect. While we are seeing exciting innovations emerging to this end across the sector, substantial challenges remain.
The first of these challenges is to translate declarations of civic intent into the reality of the university’s mainstream operations and ways of working. Reviews such as the Civic Universities Commission, reporting in 2019, found many examples of good practice in local initiatives but nonetheless ‘found few examples of a systematic and strategic approach to the civic role, based on an analysis of the needs of the place.’ One important vehicle for meeting this need can be the Civic University Agreements that some 60 universities have struck with local stakeholders to co-create shared solutions to shared social, educational and workforce challenges. Another, perhaps surprising, catalyst for closer relationships between universities and their local communities has been the COVID pandemic. The many ways in which universities and their staff supported local healthcare services and community welfare programmes during the pandemic have hugely enhanced their local profiles and goodwill, laying strong foundations for longer term collaborations around post-COVID renewal.
A second challenge for growing local engagement is to universities’ business models – how they finance, sustain and extend their civic services. Business and civic collaborations that were previously treated as ‘third stream’ add-ons to universities’ core income from academic teaching and research are becoming central to their long-term sustainability. Offsetting their exposure to potential cuts in national funding and student enrolments, many universities have been growing direct partnerships with local and regional employers, especially in healthcare and public services. These deals work to address local workforce needs while providing ‘baked in’ enrolments and tuition fees for the participating institutions. Others are diversifying their service portfolios into short courses and professional development programmes, often delivered online. These services further local needs for workforce and personal upskilling, as well as opening new learning pathways and opportunities in partnerships with schools, colleges and local authorities.
A third challenge for aspiring civic universities is organisational: their established structures, management processes and information systems are, quite understandably, designed for the delivery of discipline-based academic teaching and research programmes. Civic engagement, in its many possible manifestations, does not fit easily with these structures, and those championing local collaborations can find themselves frustrated by unintended internal barriers. A few universities have started to address this concern with dedicated senior level appointments, such as the new Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Engagement and Place at Newcastle University. Others have focused their engagement strategies on those faculties or schools that naturally have strong collaborative external relationships, notably in healthcare, public services and business.
A further challenge for universities putting societal benefits at the heart of their strategies is how to measure, target and demonstrate success and progress. An immediate problem here is the sheer diversity and specificity of potential university-civic collaborations, ranging from improving local educational attainments and progression to strengthening community healthcare programmes to upskilling local workforces and beyond. Another is the fact that successful impacts in these areas are effectively set and judged outside the university by the stakeholder communities for whom and with whom they are working. Standardised metrics (inevitably measuring activities rather than outcomes) set within the HE sector will not satisfy either of these requirements. There are however other approaches to similar needs outside the HE system that might be built upon; examples include the Social Value Scorecard developed for the voluntary sector and the Themes, Outcomes and Measures (TOMs) framework used in local government.
It is too soon to start hailing these nascent developments as the ‘new normal’ for a geographically- and socially engaged university sector. But the will to create what has been termed ‘universities for others’ is undoubtedly real and growing across the sector, as are the demands from civic and place-based stakeholders for more meaningful links with ‘their’ universities. After decades of fitting convergent strategies to the vagaries of shifting political priorities, universities are differentiating themselves through direct relationships and collaborations with the communities in which they are located – and are often named after.
The acid test will be if we start to see universities rebranding themselves as ‘the University for Somewhere’ rather than the noncommittal ‘University of Anywhere’.