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The Kerslake Collection | Introduction

Introduction – building on Lord Kerslake’s legacy

Bob Kerslake, who died in 2023, was one of the most distinguished public servants of his generation. He had been chief executive first of Hounslow Council and then of Sheffield City Council, before becoming chief executive of the Homes and Communities Agency and permanent secretary of the Department of Communities and Local Government, ending his career as the head of the Home Civil Service. He left the civil service in 2015, and became a cross-bench peer in the House of Lords, assuming an extraordinary range of public-service duties. At his memorial service, Aline Ellins, who had worked for Bob for several years as his assistant, affectionately described the challenges of juggling his diary and his commitments to no fewer than 24 different organisations. He was chair of the board of governors at Sheffield Hallam University; chair of King’s College Hospital Trust; chair of BeFirst, the regeneration arm of Barking and Dagenham Council; and chair of the Peabody Trust, one of the largest providers of rented housing in the United Kingdom. He chaired the UK2070 Commission, he chaired the inquiry into the emergency response to the 2017 Manchester bombing, and he advised the Labour Party on its preparations for government. As the University of Warwick’s registrar, Rachel Sandby-Thomas, joked when introducing Bob at a sector conference during the Civic University Commission, Bob ‘had more chairs than DFS’.

He was an almost constant fixture in the print and broadcast media, as an incisive and well-informed commentator on the workings of politics and government. He always spoke with conviction and authority. He cared passionately about the future of the nation and the way organisations in it worked, and he wanted them to work better, more effectively and more confidently in support of something that perhaps sounds vaguely old-fashioned now, but turns out to matter more than ever: the public good.

We got to know Bob through his work in the higher-education sector. Bob was chair of Sheffield Hallam from 2016 to December 2023; Chris’s tenure as vice-chancellor and Bob’s leadership of the board were almost completely coterminous, though Bob’s tenure was cruelly cut short. Despite the immense range of his commitments, he was always thoroughly engaged with the university, its strategic development and its impact on its city and region. But he was also interested not just in Sheffield Hallam but in what universities as anchor institutions could do to drive prosperity, shape lives and contribute to – that phrase again – the public good.

This was what led him to phone Chris one day in 2018, to say that he had been asked by Richard to chair the UPP Foundation’s Civic University Commission. Alistair Jarvis, then chief executive of Universities UK, had contacted the Foundation to suggest Bob as the ideal chair of the commission.

Before accepting, Bob asked Chris’s opinion on whether he should do it – a somewhat academic question, since he had a predisposition to agree to almost anything that was intellectually interesting and policy relevant. We quickly agreed that it was worthwhile, and over the next year or so Bob steered a large and diverse commission through a mass of evidence and university visits, to produce a report that was thoughtful, challenging and impactful. 

Bob was an extremely active chair – not just a high-profile figurehead. He attended all of the sessions, commented on all of the drafts and shaped the recommendations. This was a result of his sense of service and duty, but it was also an expression of how interested he was in the subject: he understood quickly that universities worked well for those who studied and worked in them. He obviously understood their triple roles in knowledge creation, socialisation and professional formation. But how could they work better for the majority of people who had no direct engagement with them? Early polling evidence confirmed what we knew from our local knowledge: the overwhelming majority of people had a positive view of universities, but they had an underdeveloped understanding of what universities actually did. Bob saw this as a double problem: it meant that universities, despite their origins in and importance to places, were simply not reaching out to the wider public, and thus were blunting their societal impact. But it also meant that there was a gap in public understanding of the importance and contribution of universities, at a time when so many public and quasi-public institutions were experiencing a crisis of public confidence. The key focus of the Civic University Commission was to close that gap.

The Civic University Commission report in 2019 drew together its thinking on the role of universities in place, and set out four tests for universities to think about in relation to this role. There was a public test, covering participation, understanding of local needs and public pride in the institution; a place test, covering universities’ alignment with local labour markets and serving diverse local populations; a strategic test, covering universities’ analysis of local needs, links with local leadership and definition of its geographies of interest; and an impact test, covering how universities achieve impacts through relationships with other institutions, and how they measure the effects of their work. The commission argued that universities should co-produce Civic University Agreements with stakeholders and the public, setting out how they would meet these four tests as a way of articulating, more strategically than had been the case previously, their contribution to shaping and developing their place.

The Civic University Commission was hugely influential. Almost all universities responded positively, and saw that the case for a more strategic engagement with place, including those places that had not seen the benefits of the massive expansion of the higher-education sector over the previous generation and those that did not routinely engage with universities’ work, or understand that it was worthwhile and pressing. More than 120 universities joined the Civic University Network, which was coordinated from Sheffield Hallam University. This was Bob’s influence at its best: grounded in a clear articulation of a real-world issue, thinking at scale about the underlying drivers that might make a difference, and putting all that into practical recommendations that might shape – that phrase yet again – the public good. 

The Civic University Commission report is more than half a decade old now, and a huge amount has changed. Universities have made huge progress on their civic engagement. The economic and policy landscape has changed. And all ideas need renewal. After Bob’s death in the middle of 2023, Richard suggested that one fitting tribute to Bob would be to ask a diverse range of thinkers to write short essays on the next steps in the civic-university agenda: reviewing progress made, looking ahead and, most importantly, translating those analyses into hard-headed policy recommendations. We decided to co-edit the collection, and were bowled over by the response we received to our letters to prospective contributors. This collection of essays is the result. 

The collection is structured around four broad themes. Individual essays focus on specific civic issues – all of them making sometimes provocative suggestions for the next steps in the civic agenda. We start with essays reflecting on the civic-university movement itself: its history, the legacy of the commission, its still relevant lessons, and the impact Bob had on the city of Sheffield. The second chapter looks at local economies and politics, with essays exploring how universities, in partnership with business, local authorities and others, can help to stimulate local economic growth. The third chapter is on education, broadly understood. The essays look at universities’ civic role in supporting opportunities for local people and specific disadvantaged groups, as well as the civic dynamics of tertiary systems, and how the system can better enhance skills to support individuals and places. The final chapter – a little more eclectic than the others – probes universities’ social purposes. It includes essays on health, arts and culture, the environment, local projects and the challenges of ‘studentification’. We are delighted that so many thought leaders from different sectors were so enthusiastic about contributing to the collection and have produced such stimulating essays. We would like to thank each and every one of them for their insightful contributions. 

Our intention was never to have a collection of essays that were all perfectly aligned. This is not a manifesto. We wanted to include a range of voices from people who have different perspectives and priorities. Reading the collection carefully, you will quickly recognise where there are conflicts between some of the points being raised. There are even one of two differences of opinion directly addressed between the essayists. Yet what unites all the essays is a recognition that the civic matters. Place matters. Bob would have approved, and would have been thoroughly engaged with the ideas emanating from these pages.

While this collection is in part in memory of Bob and his lasting legacy for the civic-university movement, it is also a call to action today. The civic role must not become a victim of the many challenges universities and local communities are facing. In fact, we strongly believe that universities will contribute to, and lead most effectively in response to these challenges by embracing their civic responsibilities as a core part of their strategic purpose, whether in relation to local economic growth and productivity, healthy communities, access to culture and the arts, housing, planning and town-centre regeneration, net zero and sustainability, to name but a few. We hope therefore that this collection can stimulate the next stage of the civic agenda and provide ideas for the sector, our partners and the new government. 

Professor Sir Chris Husbands and Richard Brabner

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