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The Kerslake Collection | Social purposes

Open-access universities 

Estimated Read time: 12 Mins

Cities are not simply oversized towns, let alone oversized housing estates. They are places of substance, with institutions that last from generation to generation. 

Universities are one such institution. In some cases that is obvious – great civic universities in places such as Manchester, Leeds, Liverpool and Sheffield have existed for more than a century and been important to their cities throughout that period. Some are older than their city’s cathedral, and all are more important. Many of the supposedly new universities trace their roots back a century or more. Sheffield Hallam, for example, goes back to the founding of the Sheffield School of Design in 1843, and Liverpool John Moores to the Liverpool Mechanics Institute of 1823. Even when a university is genuinely new – think of Lincoln – it is immediately an anchor institution, expected to exist for the next century and beyond. 

A civic university, new or old, will have certain characteristics. It will look to, interact with and respond to the civic society in which it finds itself. That makes civic universities different from the handful of global universities, and from specialist institutions. Caltech is not a civic university and nor is LSE. LSE has important civic functions – its public lecture series is second to none – but ultimately it is a small, globally elite, internationally oriented specialist institution. That is not to deny, of course, that a civic university can be world class – Manchester’s Nobel Prize-winning Physics department proves that. 

A civic university will, unlike a specialist institution, aspire to cover all bases. Take medical schools, for example. If a university is the only one in the city, and if it claims the mantle of a civic university, it will either have a medical school, or will aspire to have one. We can see this in Lincoln, where the university recently created one. They knew that without a medical school, the city was struggling to attract enough doctors and nurses to staff its hospital. In the medium term, that risked the local hospital losing important specialisms and becoming little more than a cottage hospital. That was not a good prospect for the city, and so it fell to the University of Lincoln to open a medical school. That is what responding to the community is about, and the university deserves much praise for doing so.

Founding a medical school is an example of a civic university responding to a big obvious need in the community in which it is located. Mostly, however, civic universities can and should respond in a myriad of small ways, which enmesh the institution in the community, touching as many lives as possible. Two such ways are access to facilities and access to courses. In short, I want universities to open their doors, in every way possible. 

Universities have something literal and physical to offer their local community: facilities, particularly outside term time when they are less intensively used. Universities have libraries that are useful as a source of books, offer fast internet and are a place to work. How many sixth-formers are there in our cities with no bedroom of their own in which to revise for their A levels and other qualifications? Any university that wants to call itself ‘civic’ should allow them to study in the university library at the very least over the Easter vacation, when fewer of its own students are around. 

Many universities have outstanding sports facilities. My daughter, aged 11, competed in a kids’ swimming gala at the University of Surrey. While this is not the only swimming pool in Surrey, it is, I think the only Olympic-length 50m pool. It was a good experience for my daughter, who found that 50m is a long way when you are 11, and I think better of the university for allowing their pool to be used for an event like this. Those who aspire to being elite swimmers need access to 50m pools; many universities can provide this. This is true for all sorts of sports facilities. Even LSE has football, rugby and cricket pitches – although, as is the way for London universities, they are nowhere near the LSE campus. These facilities should be open to local organisations and to individuals who want to play football, or hold a football birthday party for their children. 

The same is true for arts, drama and music facilities – facilities that can be used by local schools and other organisations. In this way, a civic university can increase the range of experiences that are available to children. Take the children who attend Mary Astell 11-16 Academy in Newcastle. The school, where more than half the children are eligible for free school meals, is in a classic white working-class area – 97 per cent of people are white, 5 per cent are unemployed, and a further 6 per cent of those aged between 16 and 74 are long-term sick or disabled. These are families in work, but graduates and graduate work are rare: only one in seven locals is qualified to level 4 or higher. This school is a 10-minute coach journey to Newcastle and Northumbria universities, even though, by Newcastle’s standards, it is very much on the edge of the city. This is exactly the sort of school that both Newcastle universities need to be opening their doors to. It would be wonderful for those children to know that they are growing up in a city with universities that are as much for them as for those who grow up in Newcastle’s more affluent suburbs. 

Almost all universities have empty halls of residence during the vacations. They often oblige students to pay over the vacations, but this transfers a problem, rather than solving it. The rooms are still empty. In 2020, during the first Covid lockdown, the government ran the “Everybody in” programme, getting street sleepers off the streets over the winter. They stayed in hotels that were empty because of Covid. It worked – deaths among the homeless fell over the winter, and there were few problems of bad behaviour. Civic universities should talk to their mayors and councils about using halls of residences like this, particularly over the Christmas vacation. Government homelessness funding can be used to pay for it, raising the prospect of students getting a rent reduction. The university could solve a problem, and the community would be stronger as a result. That is what a civic university looks like. 

Nor is this just an issue for winter. There are now more than 100,000 families a year without a home of their own, typically crammed into utterly unsuitable accommodation. Many halls of residence consist of a group of bedrooms, with a communal kitchen-dining room. While by no means perfect, these are far better suited to families than a bed and breakfast. Could they house families in need during the long summer vacation? I see no reason why not. Civic universities must reach out to local authorities, and local authorities to civic universities. 

While opening literal doors to real facilities is important, the heart of a university is education. In that context, many civic universities, particularly selective ones, need to do much more. By this I don’t mean lectures for local interest, important though these are. I mean access to local people, for degree courses. 

Most newer universities will have a strong local presence. Almost half of the students at a university like Sheffield Hallam live in the greater Sheffield area. Most commute from home. Living at home while studying is not for everyone, but it is an important option for many, particularly those from poorer backgrounds. It can be hard to find the money to live away from home, and the maintenance grants and loan package will not cover life in many student towns. 

Selective, as well as recruiting, civic universities should open their doors completely and unambiguously to local people. They should make a blanket offer of a place to any local child who gets the relevant grades for the relevant course, without the need to write a personal statement and the other stuff that is currently required. 

Of course, we have to be a little careful here. This proposal could not cover Medicine, because the government limits the number of places, presumably with the intention of ensuring that our shortage of doctors continues in perpetuity. Similarly, if Oxford said that anyone who lived in the city and got AAA was guaranteed a place at the university, we would expect that a lot of people with academically able children would move to Oxford, and access to the university would essentially be determined by the ability to pay for a house in the city. That said, neither Oxford nor Cambridge has ever claimed to be civic universities, so we shall put them to one side. We also need to be careful in London – no one university could offer unconditional places to the 40,000 sixth-form students leaving London schools in any given year – but London universities could cooperate to ensure good local access. 

For most selective civic universities, an open-door policy is a viable proposal. Liverpool, for example, has around 2,500 sixth-form pupils in any given year, while Sheffield has 2,000. The universities take around 6,000 and 5,000 UK undergraduates a year. Since not all of the local sixth-form students will want to go to their local university, or will get the grades to attend these particular universities, it is likely that these universities could have an open-access offer to local people without causing any difficulties in providing the relevant number of places. We also all know that almost all selective universities reduce grades to fill their final places – so winning over more local students who actually have the grades would strengthen their intake, not reduce it. Many well-qualified candidates would choose other options – there would be sixth-formers in Liverpool who chose Sheffield and vice versa. That is good – people should be free to make their own choices and encouraged to think actively about the best course and the best university for them. 

Imagine being a teacher talking to a capable student who doesn’t know whether university is for them. This student will be the first in their family to go to university, and perhaps knows no graduates, or almost none, who can offer meaningful advice. Their family has seen rejection all too many times – enough to discourage risk-taking. Imagine being able to say to that student, ‘I can guarantee that if you get the grades, Newcastle will take you. They have said that anyone who lives in Newcastle and gets the grades can come.’ 

The academic literature tells us unambiguously that ease of entry encourages access. Caroline Hoxby’s work is the most obvious in this space, but there is much other work that comes to the same conclusion. Sometimes that conversation between teacher and pupil will be enough. Let’s imagine, however, that it is not – the student does not put in an application via Ucas. The student has, in short, umm-ed and err-ed and done nothing. On results day, they achieve the relevant grades. The teacher can say, ‘We, your school, will certify that you got the grades and live in the city. All you need to do is click “send” and you have a place at university for this year.’ For some students, that is a step they are willing to take – a step that has no possibility of rejection. This proposal is going to change lives, and every civic university should do this. 

Universities should of course be careful to be inclusive – the University of Liverpool should include Knowsley as well as Liverpool, for example, and the University of Sheffield should include Rotherham as well as Sheffield itself. But let us not make the best the enemy of the good. Let the sector find a selective civic university willing to stand up and be counted, willing to pilot this. Their education and statistics department can calculate how many people in an area typically get these grades. If it seems too risky, start small and do this only for students who have been eligible for free school meals. Or start small and say it is only for students from a tightly defined area. But in the fullness of time, let’s move to making this offer as wide and open as possible. In London, the various universities will have to work together to do the same, for none is large enough to make a London-wide offer. 

I want every child growing up in Liverpool, broadly defined, to know that there are four universities that will take them when they are 18 – or as a mature student – if they get the grades. In Newcastle, I want every child at Mary Astell school, and their parents, to be able to see a route to university in their community, because their local universities are not just in their community but of their community. 

Then civic universities should go further, and interrogate the National Pupil and HESA-linked databases to find how many students there are in the local community who had the grades, and yet attended either no university or attended a much less selective university, typically leading to lower-paid jobs and fewer career options. They should then convene such students and ask them what they, the local civic university, could have done that would have persuaded these students to take up the offer of a place. Is the answer more information? More part-time courses? Bursaries? Different courses? Degree apprenticeships? Good qualitative survey work – sometimes termed immersive research – will be key to understanding what works. 

This, then, is my challenge to universities. Identify those facilities that you have, that your community needs. Open those literal doors, and never close them again. Those facilities could be libraries and wifi. They could be classrooms for your local University of the Third Age to use in the evenings or in the vacations. They could be sports, arts and drama facilities for local people, or halls of residence for those in need. Everything you own should be in scope; no door should be left closed without the strongest possible reason for excluding your community. You do not need permission from government, or a change in the law. These proposals are entirely within your own existing powers.

Wherever possible, charge nothing – most of these facilities cost nothing at the margin. Where possible, seek sponsorship from local employers and charities. When you do the right thing, money can often be found. 

You need too to make a big, open and comprehensive offer to those who are growing up in your cities. That offer is easy to explain and can be plastered all over the bus stops of your city: 

‘Get the grades, get a place.’ 

This is what it means to be a civic university: in your community, of your community, for your community. 

Dr Tim Leunig

Estimated Read time: 12 Mins

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