arrow-down arrow-leftarrow-rightUPP-Foundation-Logo-AssetsUPP-Foundation-Logo-AssetsUPP-Foundation-Logo-AssetsUPP-Foundation-Logo-AssetsInstagram Facebook Instagram Instagram Linkedin Linkedin Instagram twitter twitter video-play

The Kerslake Collection | In memory of Bob Kerslake and the Civic University Commission

Building on the Civic University Commission’s legacy

There’s nothing new about the civic-university movement. The notion of a university making a unique difference to its place can be traced back to the age of the music hall and WG Grace. And, just as with concerts and cricket, the civic university has adapted to changing circumstances, so as to continue to be relevant to modern-day life. What was once Marie Lloyd at the Drury Lane is now ABBA playing virtually at the Olympic Park. Where we once had the Gentlemen versus the Players, we now have the T20 Blast. While the first civic universities focused on the great cities of the second industrial revolution, we now, in addition, think about the role of universities in supporting left-behind towns. 

But in the not-too-distant past, there was a problem. While the civic-university agenda has always been there as a matter of practice, in the age of globalisation following the end of the Cold War, and the age of mass university participation, it was seldom part of the discourse about what universities were for. All universities everywhere were expected to focus on their contribution to knowledge creation and dissemination via teaching, and to design their internal organisation to support this. They had to be globalised institutions, developing global citizens. 

None of that was wrong in and of itself, but it opened a gap between universities as they had been originally imagined and universities as they were developing. The problem was exposed in the aftermath of the Brexit referendum, which – whatever one thinks of it – shone a light on Britain’s stark geographical inequalities like no other event in our lifetime. As globalised institutions that had prospered in many areas of the country that were otherwise economically and socially depressed, universities were a high-profile manifestation of the country’s inequalities: what journalist and policy wonk David Goodhart has called ‘anywhere’ rather than ‘somewhere’.

When the Civic University Commission ran in 2018-19, Lord Kerslake would recall disturbing recent facts when speaking to the sector, including the fact that inner London was the only British region among the top-10 wealthiest regions in Northern Europe. By contrast, nine of the 10 poorest regions in Northern Europe were in the UK, with the majority in the North of England. Someone in the North of England was 20 per cent more likely to die early than someone in the South. A newborn baby in Kensington and Chelsea had a life expectancy of almost 10 years more than a baby born in Blackpool. And there were also twice as many schools judged to be inadequate in the Midlands and North than in the South and East. 

While many communities faced these huge economic and social challenges, universities everywhere were growing. They contributed more than £95 billion to the economy, supporting a million jobs, and educating more than two million students, including well over 600,000 from around the world. For example, in 1978 in Sheffield there were 4,000 students and nearly 45,000 people working in the steel industry. Today, there are around 60,000 students and approximately 4,000 steelworkers.

It was in this context that we established the Civic University Commission to help universities rediscover their role in place. As the UK grapples with the challenges of low growth and low productivity in certain regions, universities can be significant anchor institutions, tying down the global in the local, and a ble to make an enormous impact on the towns, cities and regions they are part of. But the perception that universities have prospered during a period of deindustrialisation and austerity – unlike other parts of the private and public realm – exposes universities to greater public scrutiny and challenge. It is no surprise then that, following Brexit and the subsequent general elections, there has been a wave of attacks on universities on a range of issues – some more justified than others – including freedom of speech, vice-chancellors’ pay, value for money for students, access to elite institutions and the quality and standard of degrees. 

The Commission was an attempt to unlock ideas about how universities might better support the towns and cities they are from, over and beyond just being there – to better understand what a university actively engaged in its place might do. It was also a means of highlighting to the policymaking world the specific benefits universities can bring to their local communities, in order to rebalance the narrative about what universities are and for whom they exist. And this really matters. As Lord Kerslake, the late great chair of the Commission, noted in the introduction to the final report, universities need ‘active support of their communities in these turbulent and challenging times’. 

The Commission and its legacy 

The Commission didn’t overcome all the negative narratives about higher education within elite discourse in Whitehall and Fleet Street. But – and with the caveat they we are both biased here – the Commission has had a significantly positive impact and legacy, particularly in universities and among the strategic partners they work with to support the places they are based. 

One of the minor impacts of the Commission was a better definition of the concept of the civic university. This has always been a bit tricky. As a result of their 19th-century origins and their role the development of great provincial cities such as Newcastle, Sheffield and Birmingham, the idea of a civic university has always been linked to bigger cities. But what about universities in more rural communities and counties – are they not civic too? This was an early challenge that Professor Mary Stuart, then vice-chancellor at the University of Lincoln, posed to us. A university like Lincoln has a significant impact across Lincolnshire. It became quickly apparent that ‘civic’ for us did mean ‘metropolitan’. 

Nor were we ably to define ‘place’ neatly. Universities are not like local authorities, which have a boundary clearly defined on maps. Their geographies are porous, often dependent on the issue or theme at hand. But while universities’ geographies may be flexible, the Commission came to the strong view that ‘place’ and ‘civic’ are ultimately synonymous. During the Commission’s four oral evidence sessions, Lord Kerslake asked the same opening question: ‘What’s your definition of a civic university?’ It was interesting to note that every single expert gave an answer related to the place a university is part of. 

This is important because governance in Western democracies is quintessentially place-bound. Politicians and their local electorates can ask: ‘We have a university in our city, but what are its obligations to us?’ 

Beyond public support and the importance of place, the Commission came to the view that what mattered was whether a university’s civic activity was intentional rather than incidental. More specifically, did it have a positive impact on the lives of people who lived and worked there? To tease out an answer to this question, the Commission set out four tests for a civic university:

The public test: 

Can people talk about their local university with pride and awareness?

The place test: Is the university’s civic activity tailored to the needs of its place? 

The strategic test: Does the university have a clear civic strategy?

The impact test: Can the university measure the impact of its activity? 

From the evidence we gathered from experts, universities and their partners, we found much enthusiasm for the civic role and many excellent individual initiatives. Every university we spoke to and received evidence from had a good list of civic projects. But it is also fair to say that not a single university passed the four civic tests set by the Commission.

We found that the civic role tended to be developed over time, according to the priorities of the vice-chancellor, the history of the institution and entrepreneurial members of staff – both academics and professional services – who had created an initiative in their community. Much of this was positive work, which universities would want to embed and sustain. But the challenge to the sector was that we found few examples of a systematic and strategic approach to the civic role, based on an analysis of the real needs and opportunities of the place. 

This led the Commission to its main recommendation for universities to develop and implement Civic University Agreements (CUAs). These had to be funded plans developed and signed off in collaboration with key civic partners, such as the local authority, hospital and further-education college, putting the real needs and opportunities of the community at the heart of the civic role. 

Since the publication of the Commission’s final report, more than 70 universities from all corners of the UK have pledged to develop a Civic University Agreement – with many now published and being implemented. A pleasing aspect of this is that there have been several CUAs worked up in collaboration between multiple universities, in order to support a place strategically. The five universities in Greater Manchester, the two universities in Newcastle and in Nottingham, and the three universities in Leicestershire are good examples of this approach. 

Those signing agreements ranged from research-intensive Russell Group members in big cities to former polytechnics in small towns in semi-rural areas. The governance structure of these places also varied from metropolitan authorities to counties with and without lower-tier districts. And all of this was changing with the creation of some mayoral combined authorities negotiating devolution deals (later on in this collection, Jane Robinson and Henry Kippin set out the opportunities arising from devolution). 

One further gap identified from the Commission was the ability of the sector to share knowledge and support peer learning about civic engagement. So in March 2020, following a competitive process, Sheffield Hallam University was selected to host the Civic University Network. The Network received seed funding from the Department for Education, Arts Council England, Carnegie UK Trust and the UPP Foundation. 

As a membership organisation the Network aimed to foster widespread good practice throughout the higher-education sector, as well as develop an evidence-based approach to civic activity. Since its formation, the Civic University Network has attracted more than 100 university members and delivered an engaging programme of events, webinars and workshops alongside its online publications. To the Network great credit, it was instrumental in the creation of the National Civic Impact Accelerator (NCIA), funded for three years by Research England, to underpin the activities of the Network by providing evidence about what works, for whom and in what contexts.

The NCIA is an ambitious programme to gather evidence and intelligence and provide universities with the framework and tools to deliver meaningful, measurable civic strategies and activities. It is creating collaboration, as well as policy and practice innovation that involves universities, local government and business groups, and the community sector to drive place-based transformation. Most recently, it has partnered with the British Academy to explore the role that universities as institutions can play in the academy’s programme on the contribution of the arts and humanities disciplines to strengthening local social infrastructure. Internationally, it has worked with the OECD Geography of Higher Education programme, which: 

aims to improve understanding of how Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) are generating value for their surrounding communities and networks. In particular…the impact of national Higher Education policies in empowering communities and individuals by responding to the needs of regions and cities

For a relatively new and small foundation to have sparked this level of interest and innovation in the sector – Civic University Agreements, the CUN and the NCIA – was quite extraordinary. There were many factors underpinning this impact, but chief among them was the role of Lord Kerslake. His experience in the different worlds of local and central government across Whitehall and the governing body of a post-1992 university was profoundly important, and led him to identify quickly the strategic issues in the civic agenda. His real superpower, though, was his ability to find the right balance between support for universities and challenge to them. His approach meant that we were able to persuade universities that they – and we in the broader sector – needed to do better. 

Learning from international experience can help. Across the United States, there are networks such as Metro Lab, which ‘drives positive impact in communities by putting science into cities and building an ecosystem of transformative partnerships’. The Brookings Institute has published a report ‘How research universities are evolving to strengthen regional economies: Case studies from the federal government’s build back better regional challenge’. Individual US universities have shifted their focus: Tulane University in New Orleans re-examined its relationship to its city following the devastating impacts of Hurricane Katrina and the pandemic. Its mission now states: ‘We are entrepreneurs on the front lines of life-changing technologies, as well as hometown heroes.’ 

Across Europe, the EU is supporting the formation of 44 European University Alliances, including CIVIS. CIVIS is a network of 11 different types of university, spread across the continent, seeking to contribute actively to the social, cultural and economic dynamism of their ecosystem, and promoting values such as inclusiveness, gender equality, non-discrimination and social equity. It aims to share experience on how to forge richer interactions and co-creation of knowledge and skills with citizens, schools, enterprises, social and cultural associations, as well as to reduce inequalities, increase access to quality training and create real opportunities for success for all students and staff. 

Next steps: policy 

While the impact and legacy of the Commission with universities and their partners has been profound, the key area it has – so far – had less of an impact on is on public policy. This has been identified in this collection by Andy Haldane, and it is something we urgently need to address. The Commission clearly – and correctly – highlighted that higher-education policy has been place-blind for decades. 

There have been some welcome changes in recent years. In particular, UK Research and Innovation and Research England have dipped their toes into place-making, funding interesting innovations often related to the translation of research into policy outcomes to support a region (Insights North East and City Redi in Birmingham are good examples here). Adult education was a key issue for the Commission, and the Government has recognised its importance through the creation of the lifelong loan entitlement (though the jury is still out on whether or not this will be a success). 

But beyond this, policy impact has been limited. Most worrying of all is the likely differential geographical impact of the financial pressure that the higher-education system is coming under on the civic role of universities. The declining real value of fees for home students and the reduction in international student numbers (which has hitherto hidden that decline) may force universities to cut back on civic activities. In some instances, mergers may be proposed, with smaller universities becoming ‘branch campuses’, or universities may restructure across sites along disciplinary lines, rather than according to geography. Complete closure of any university would clearly have a dramatic impact on the place it was part of. But even if that dreaded outcome does not come to pass, the retrenchment of the sector can only negatively impact on the places universities are based. As the real value of income-contingent loans declines, it would certainly restrict the choices for students who can only afford to study at their local university while living at home. In short, it is a huge shame that the higher-education market unleashed by the 2017 Higher Education Act lacked an explicit concern for geography. What was taught and researched by whom and where – and to whom the benefits might accrue – has not been leveraged in a way that could support more balanced territorial development. 

Not only, then, is this collection published in memory of Lord Kerslake, but we also hope that is starts to stimulate a policy debate about the role of universities to support their places – and there are many fabulous ideas posed across the collection. 

While the Civic University Network and the National Civic Impact Accelerator support good practice, we believe England also needs a national research and intelligence infrastructure capable of promoting and guiding effective policy to support the civic-university agenda in a way that is informed by local experience and is able to transform this into policy and practice locally and nationally, top down and bottom up. A sustainable civic-policy hub or think tank would be a fitting tribute to Bob Kerslake, and is something we should consider working towards in the future. 

Richard Brabner and Professor John Goddard OBE

Estimated Read time: 14 Mins

View next essays