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The Kerslake Collection | Social purposes

Embedding social and civic purpose 

‘We cannot wait for great visions from great people, for they are in short supply. It is up to us to light our own small fires in the darkness.’ 

Charles Handy

In the heart of East London, in one of the most deprived communities in our capital, sits an extraordinary building: Poplar Works. Here, alongside studio space for entrepreneurs and community space, female ex-offenders learn the skills they need to thrive in the fashion and textiles industry that is part of this neighbourhood’s history and future. 

The number of partners who have come together to make this social enterprise a reality is remarkable: the housing association Poplar HARCA; workspace providers The Trampery; London’s ‘Fashion District’; the Mayor of London; the UK Fashion and Textiles Association; the Ministry of Justice; and The Portal Trust, along with colleagues of ours at University of the Arts London, led by director of social responsibility, Claire Swift.

In many ways, Poplar Works is a perfect example of civic engagement by a university: a long-term partnership, aligning private, philanthropic and public-sector financing behind shared goals, and leveraging academic expertise for community gain. It is an iconic project for UAL, cited in our recent Queens’ Anniversary Prize, and a source of pride for the whole university.

But it is also a reminder that the civic-university agenda hinges on the art and practice of collaboration. Readers who have been involved in multi-stakeholder collaborations will be able to imagine the number of meetings that have gone into this single project over the years, the number of proposals that have been circulated, and the number of tears that have been shed. And yet Making for Change remains tiny. The number of women it has reached can be counted in the dozens. Are there ripple effects in the community? Of course. Does it inspire the students who come into contact with it? Of course. But Making for Change will not transform the fortunes of Poplar on its own.

If we want the kind of scale of change that Lord Kerslake believed could come from civic universities, we need to make collaborations like these far simpler, more normal and less fragile. 

That is not, perhaps, the tidy model that some would like to see when they talk about anchor institutions coordinating a single local strategy for economic and social development. But in this essay we argue that, too often, those who advocate for devolution and placemaking stay stuck in the expectation of the heroic, top-down leadership we are accustomed to seeing from Whitehall and Westminster – and which we know to be ineffective. 

We do not believe that approach will leverage the true potential of universities to help their places and communities to thrive. We explore why the nature of universities can make them awkward custodians of strategy, but also how those same features might give them unique advantages when it comes to stoking collaboration. We make the case that universities need to embrace the full breadth of their social purpose in order to make collaboration with them easier, but that local partners need to adapt as well if they are to harness the power and expertise of their local academic institutions. 

Collaboration is hard

Our starting observation is that collaboration is as difficult as it is essential. That is the core message of The Collaboration Playbook, co-authored by Nigel Ball and Ian Taylor for the Government Outcomes Lab at the University of Oxford, which offers guidance on how to seize collaboration opportunities successfully. 

Nigel and Ian identified five fundamental aspects of successful collaboration: leadership, trust, culture, power and learning. Their observation is that different organisations, especially those in different sectors, tend to be ruled by different institutional logics, be that ‘market logic, of competition and efficiency; bureaucratic logic, of regulation and rules; and democratic logic, of majority control and citizen participation’.

As they explain: ‘Actions, processes, norms, and structures that are seen as legitimate from the vantage point of one institutional logic may be seen as less legitimate or even illegitimate from the perspective of another logic.’

What then is the institutional logic of a university? As anyone who’s ever worked in one will attest, it is a mix of all these logics, but fundamentally it relies on a professional logic of independent expertise and peer-to-peer accountability. Academics are expected to regulate each other to follow some fundamental principles, and then get on with it.

Universities are unique

The doctrines of academic freedom and institutional autonomy are foundationally important to the role higher education plays in the advancement of human knowledge. However, they also bring with them a set of peculiarities of culture. The Civic University Commission argued that universities are rarely strategic in their approach to civic collaboration. But this is not an accident: it’s a feature of the university model.

Leading a social-purpose function at a university, we are confronted with this reality every day. The purpose movement that has arisen in the private sector is a quest to reorient the focus of corporations from profit to social and environmental value. But universities – except perhaps for the most specialised – do not have a single focus to be reoriented. A university is a community, not a corporation: a community of usually highly independent thinkers who baulk at being corralled by strategy.

Academics often have a strong sense of individual purpose, whether through their commitment to their research agenda or to teaching. They are less frequently enthusiastic about other people defining that purpose, or about measuring or justifying the value of work that, to them, has intrinsic value. 

As a result, even the most zealous vice-chancellor is reliant on persuasion and inspiration when pursuing a civic agenda, with only the tool of funding – increasingly limited by the sector’s financial position – to sweeten the deal. 

Many universities are finding it easiest to do civic on the professional-services side of the house, because line management is simpler there. However, more ambitious civic collaborations will depend on effective working practices from both sides of the academic-professional services divide.

A cadre of ‘third-space professionals’ – non-academics working in academic spaces – is emerging to curate, develop and sustain those collaborations. But the fact that they are needed demonstrates how far we have to go. And too many we have spoken to find themselves struggling to be heard and respected by either side.

Bridging the divide

If collaborating with universities is hard, some would argue that local leaders should simply let the more structured and hierarchical organisations in a local area take charge. That argument has two flaws. Most obviously, excluding universities would leave some of our greatest intellectual and cultural assets on the shelf. More subtly, calling on other powerful local players to lead coalitions mistakes collaboration for an end in itself, rather than a means to an end. If heft alone were enough, government would have solved the problems by now. But there is no route to civic renewal that does not involve deep collaboration.

Neither can we remake universities to eliminate their freedom and flexibility. An army of strategically directed academics working coherently towards a single outcome is not a desirable end. A whole university can never be coherent while holding space for divergence and dissent within disciplines and between them. 

However, there are ways to build cultural bridges between universities and the multiple other organisations that surround them. Some of that work must be done within universities. Some of it should be done in those other institutions: breaking down their hierarchies to open them to the kinds of flexible and opportunistic collaborations at which universities excel. And some must be done at the ecosystem level, with national government setting a new framework in which higher education has the flexibility to be more civic and local government finding a more open approach to local placemaking.

National context

The national context in which universities operate pulls them firmly away from a civic mindset. Resources are constrained; research and teaching of home students is subsidised by international students. Universities are pulled into a space where they are increasingly seen by the public as edu-businesses, at worst selling false promises to young people, and without the social legitimacy to speak out about issues that matter any more.

The intellectual logic driving the tuition-fees funding model and the Office for Students regulatory model is a belief that higher education is a consumer service, with the goal of providing private benefit to those who take it up. This is in defiance of the charitable status and foundational charters that dominate the sector and define our purpose in the service of the public good.

To fulfil our civic potential, universities need a new funding model, a new form of institutional logic and a more ambitious way of defining the public good to which we contribute. 

Purposeful universities

At UAL, we have chosen to describe that determination to ally ourselves to the public good as a journey to becoming ‘a social-purpose university’. By using this phrase, we have borrowed an idea with a private-sector pedigree. This is a tacit acknowledgement of the operating environment we find ourselves in. But it also offers a route out. 

First and foremost, the purpose agenda is a challenge to the market logic that has been developing in universities over the last decade and a half. Focusing on our institutions’ social purpose does not mean abandoning financial discipline – after all, an organisation that runs out of money tends to destroy rather than create value. Instead, a focus on social purpose shifts financial matters from a core objective to a design constraint, within which we must define a business plan. The purpose is the impact we have, not the reserves we can accrue.

At UAL, we also argue that to fulfil our social purpose we must challenge the dominant idea of absolute institutional neutrality, which sees every university as nothing more than a hollow container, to be filled with whatever ideas and debates its individual academics choose to express. A university with no voice of its own, operating in a market environment, is just another business. No one will value its broader social role any more, and no one will care if it goes under, except perhaps those directly affected. To reclaim their place as indispensable civic institutions, universities need to start saying more about the issues that matter most to people. 

We are not suggesting that universities should adopt a position on every item on the news agenda. Nor that institutional decisions should subvert the doctrine of academic freedom: universities should always be a place where dissent and disagreement are welcome. However, where academic expertise is clear and the internal community is in accord, universities should feel confident stating their case. At UAL, for example, we want to bring attention to the need for creative education in schools, to the importance of the creative industries to the UK, and to the terrible environmental record of the textiles industry. 

Finally, we believe universities need to foster the citizenship mindset that is core to the Kerslake agenda. Lord Kerslake asked universities to think first about what their places need from them, instead of simply what disciplines they want to pursue or what courses they can sell. At UAL, we ride under a banner that declares ‘The world needs creativity’: that service mindset is built into the story we tell about ourselves. But are we disciplined about asking what the world needs from us in every strategy document, every college and every studio? Of course not. We are only in the foothills of working out how to do this.

Imaginative institutions

The cultural divide between universities and the organisations that surround them can be bridged from the other side, too. Large institutions are always dominated by rules and bureaucracy, some of which are essential. And yet those rules can eat away at individuals’ sense of agency and responsibility for their actions; they can build a culture of learned helplessness. And by creating a culture in which failure is not tolerated, they can undermine the practice of innovation and experimentation that is so essential to collaboration.

We are drawn to one experiment in particular, in Camden, where our Central St Martins college is based. Over 18 months, an organisation called Moral Imaginations, led by Phoebe Tickell, worked with Camden Council to design and deliver Camden Imagines – a project that draws heavily on the design disciplines in which UAL is a world leader. The end-of-project report describes its ambition: 

‘Participants learnt how to include future generations in decision-making, future visioning and how to move from accepting what is to imagining what if. The next phase…will involve…creating new ways of collaborating with communities and to share power and resources.’

This is a challenge to the standard model of leadership, in which the knowing and imagining are reserved for the people at the top of organisations. A collaborative leader must learn to tolerate much greater levels of risk and ambiguity than they might be used to. This will mean different skills and different structures for civic leaders: emotional intelligence and humility rather than just decisiveness and drive, and ambition focused on outcomes rather than process or control.

The local level: tolerating civic messiness

Last year, Polly McKenzie, one of the authors, served on the Urban Futures Commission, led by the Royal Society of the Arts and co-chaired by the mayor of Bristol, Marvin Rees, and the RSA’s chief executive, Andy Haldane. It urged every city to develop a local prosperity plan – a ‘single long-term plan for delivering prosperity for their citizens and beyond’.

It would be delightfully tidy if a plan for local prosperity could be cooked up in a room full of local chief executives, vice-chancellors and political leaders, and simply delivered by all the people who work for them. But no collaboration ever works that way, and especially not one with universities in it.

The goal of any such local plan, therefore, must not be to define every action or activity for local partners to complete. If local parties emerge from a process with a strictly defined set of tasks, the chances are this will reinforce top-down delivery and silos rather than break them open. Instead, a local plan should aim to set a narrative and context in which the everyday messiness of small, medium and large collaborations can together add up to something. The UK Urban Futures Commission described this as an ‘articulation of the city’s unique story and assets’ and a ‘clear definition of measurable natural, social and economic goals, with accompanying theory of change and plans to monitor progress’. 

At this level, a local plan can foster rather than crush innovation. It can provide a story in which everyone can see themselves – and in which individual academics, teams and faculties can place their own expertise. This will be uncomfortable for local leaders who might prefer a detailed delivery plan they can monitor. But it is the only way to retain the agility to find the collaborative path.

At the moment, many successful local collaborations rely on inspirational, forward-thinking and naturally collaborative leaders to emerge serendipitously. That is not good enough to make these approaches normal, and makes the continued success of the few we already have vulnerable when a new sheriff comes to town. But collaborative leadership is now well described. This enables us to take proactive steps to spread the practice of it, for example by changing how we train leaders.


Collaboration is difficult. Universities are distinctive. National government has no idea what it wants from our sector; local government has been defunded and demoralised. And the world’s problems are not getting smaller or simpler to solve. 

Yet this paper is not a counsel of despair – how could it be when we are surrounded by people lighting their small fires in the darkness? We need to build local ecosystems that allow them to flourish. We cannot make collaboration easy or comfortable, but we can perhaps make it normal, anyway. If we get it right, we can all hope for fewer meetings, fewer bid documents, fewer tears – and more impact.

Polly Mackenzie and Nigel Ball

Estimated Read time: 14 Mins

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