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

Past, present and future for the civic agenda

A civic university is at worst a contradiction in terms and even at best a sort of paradox. The civic is, by definition, local; the university, by definition, makes claims to universality. This was a tension exposed in Liverpool at the turn of the 20th century, as students and staff fought to avoid their university becoming ‘merely a local institution’. In response, the vice-chancellor of the University of Birmingham was called in to argue that Liverpool should aim to be precisely that. ‘Do not seek for independence or isolation,’ he counselled. ‘Welcome civic control.’ Yet his advice was disregarded in Liverpool. And, even as their vice-chancellor spoke, Birmingham was itself moving out of the city and starting to model itself on something very different indeed, emulating major international research universities like Harvard, Johns Hopkins and MIT. 

There have been three great civic-university moments in British history. The first began in the mid-19th century and ended with the First World War, giving birth to Liverpool and Birmingham and the other so-called redbrick foundations. The second began in the late 1960s and ended in the early 1980s. Although it involved other institutions, it was defined by the polytechnics: local institutions explicitly founded to respond to local needs. Finally, fuelled by the rhetoric of localism and by the reality of financial growth, the current – and third – civic-university moment arose a decade and a half ago. It was far from coincidental that David Willetts began his campaign to expand student numbers and increase student fees in the Great Hall of the University of Birmingham. Since then, the idea of the civic university has become so popular that it has even been embraced by institutions such as King’s College London, which were never any such thing in the first place. 

This history teaches two important lessons. The first is highly particular: each of these moments was different. The first wave of foundations was produced by an unlikely coalition of forces: powerful civic authorities, wealthy local philanthropists and ordinary citizens. By 1912, it was observed that, ‘Every great city seems to consider it a matter of pride…that it should hold a University within its walls.’ 

The second wave was the product of a very different set of actors, not least the Government in Westminster. The polytechnics may have been intended to serve local needs and to be governed by local authorities, but they were conjured into being by the word of a Cabinet minister, and found themselves subject to a national system of assessment. 

Our current civic-university moment reflects an attempt by the state to withdraw from direct university funding, and is also a product of local government decline. In an age of austerity, the relatively better-off higher-education sector stepped in to support places that were facing serious social problems. This was in many respects a pragmatic decision, reflecting a need to attract prospective students and to persuade the wider community that universities were a public benefit. It was also almost the complete opposite of how the first civic universities were founded. 

The second lesson taught by this history is more general. These three successive phases all reflect the fact that universities in the long run tend to track away from the civic, losing their distinctiveness as they cleave towards a single idea of the university. The polytechnics were founded to fill a gap, offering local provision at a time when the redbrick universities were coming to function as national institutions. State funding had enabled the civics to escape dependency on city councils, and also allowed them to recruit more widely. By 1963, fewer than one in 10 of Liverpool students came from Merseyside, for example. The current civic-university moment is, in turn, a response to the way in which the polytechnics then grew away from their locality. This was a process confirmed by their translation into universities in 1992. They resembled their predecessors in seeking to compete at a national – even international – level. They, too, were lured away from the local as they sought to emulate the existing universities.

That so many universities have so recently articulated a commitment to the civic is obviously a good thing. Universities are now recognised as critical anchor institutions in cities and towns across the county. They are sharing their spaces, offering support, even providing services that might previously have been seen as the responsibility of the local authority. The Civic University Network has itemised scores of initiatives – from placemaking to policing, from students volunteering to procurement policies that favour the local. In Manchester and Nottingham, the old redbrick foundations and the former polytechnics have signed a Civic University Agreement. In that way, the third civic-university moment draws together institutions with their origins in the previous two. 

It also, of course, does something different. Our current civic-university moment has been made possible by three things: relative prosperity as a result of a sudden increase in English tuition-fee income, combined with a massive growth in the number of overseas students and – related to both these developments – a broader process of what has become known as ‘financialisation’ within higher education. At first sight, each might be thought to militate against the civic. Tuition fees were intended to encourage further competition between institutions at a national level. The growth of the international student market has similarly altered the makeup of universities. At Manchester, that great bastion of the redbrick tradition, 46 per cent of the student population is international. At Coventry (once Lanchester Polytechnic), only 45 per cent come from the United Kingdom; the majority are from overseas. Financialisation has also ensured that these students are increasingly housed in accommodation underwritten by the money market. Among the biggest private providers, IQ Student Accommodation is owned by the US firm Blackstone, while Unite has become an FTSE 100 firm. The bonds that have financed other aspects of institutional expansion have still more powerfully fused universities to the world of international capital. 

Such developments not only threatened to draw universities’ attention away from their locality, but they were also often unpopular. Rising student fees were fiercely resisted – and remain resented. Increased international recruitment has implications for immigration policy and has led to questions about whether British applicants are being rejected in favour of higher-paying, less-qualified overseas equivalents. Financialisation as a whole has generated violent attacks from its opponents within the university, while growing student numbers and the increasing scale of student accommodation have also proved a source of friction with those outside it. What has become known as ‘studentification’ has pushed up private rental values and helped to produce huge, often gated university developments in which locals can feel unwelcome. 

It was, in many respects, this set of quite strikingly negative responses that prompted universities to rediscover their civic heritage. As Lord Kerslake observed in his foreword to ‘Truly Civic’ in 2019, universities ‘need all the friends that they can get’. The civic agenda was one way of obtaining just that. University leaders were also surely far from unaware that improving the condition of their home town might it more attractive to students, and thus support recruitment. In that way, the contemporary civic-university moment is best understood as a conscious response to forces that were drawing these institutions away from their localities and the criticism that they had prioritised money over service to their communities. 

For national and international developments to inspire this celebration of the civic is perhaps not all that surprising. Geographers like Tim O’Riordan have long argued that, ‘The global and the local are mutually reinforcing.’ Universities appear to be a case in point. 

Yet, just like the civic university itself, this apparent paradox is inherently unstable. Indeed, it is coming under increasing threat. The recent expansion of Britain’s universities took place in an environment of historically low inflation and exceptionally low interest rates. It was funded, too, by fees that have been eroded as costs have risen. The unit of resource has almost halved in value since 2012. At the same time, the robustness of the international student market has been widely questioned. That universities are exposed to international finance inevitably leaves them more vulnerable to fluctuations and more open to the negative effects of debt restructuring. In that way, global and national changes now threaten the university and, with it, universities’ commitment to the civic. 

A series of high-profile problems at a range of English universities appears to bear this out. Despite almost universally insisting that they are in a very strong financial position, institutions across the country have recently planned compulsory redundancies, and some have announced the closure of whole departments. Talk of crisis is perennial in higher education, and it is right to be wary of generalisation. Not least, it is important to note that problems with recruitment and levels of indebtedness differ widely from one institution to another. But the overall picture is clear. We are now a very long way away from the conditions that made the third civic-university moment possible. There is a real danger that, in hindsight, we will come to realise that the moment ended just about now.

Certainly, the conjuncture of a long-term tendency to jettison the civic with the short-term issues faced by universities across the country is discouraging, to say the least. It undeniably presents providers and policymakers more generally with a challenge. Simply because of their size, universities are inevitably important players in the local economy. They also, perforce, play a significant role in the educational and cultural life of a locality. Just as consequentially, they have a symbolic – even emotional – power. The closure of any campus is seen as a ‘devastating loss’ by the people it once served. The ending of a degree programme risks creating ‘cold spots’ in which there is no local or even regional provision of subjects like modern languages. Moreover, even if universities manage to avoid making such substantial cuts, there remains a risk that they will retrench in other ways. They are no less in need of friends than they were at the start of this civic-university moment. What they increasingly lack are the resources and incentives to support civic initiatives.

If the civic-university moment is to maintain its momentum, then this question of resources and incentives needs urgently to be addressed. Faced by apparently existential threats, universities are unlikely to prioritise the needs of their local communities. In a period of significant retrenchment, the perennial tendency of universities to downplay the civic will inevitably be exacerbated by their need to prioritise academic reputation and to secure financial support from well beyond their immediate context. Despite much interesting work on the issue, the league tables used by students and policymakers alike continue to reward almost everything but civic engagement. In a struggle for survival, with a thousand and one other issues to contend with, the civic could easily be at a disadvantage.

So what might help? Fixing an increasingly broken student-funding system is an obvious priority. Jo Johnson is just the latest former minister to argue that before it does anything, ‘The government must inflation-proof fees.’ There is also a need to diffuse anxieties about international students. A new concordat should be reached between government and providers, which will maintain the supply of able (and valuable) individuals while also reassuring the public that they are not taking places away from home students. Yet, however much a new financial settlement would be welcomed, even a solution to the declining unit of resource would not, on its own, necessarily encourage universities to focus on the civic. Indeed, history teaches that the effect is often quite the reverse. It was, after all, precisely the growth of national student funding that enabled the old redbricks to escape civic control and the polytechnics to aspire to university status. Instead of untargeted increases in support, what is needed is a set of well-defined incentives, financial and academic. Civic engagement needs to be rewarded. Universities and those university staff who prioritise it need to be recognised.

One very simple way this might be achieved is to rethink how external research funding and internal human-resources processes are run. The very fact that the Research Excellence Framework employs geographical descriptors as a proxy for quality – rewarding ‘world-leading’ or ‘internationally excellent’ research – tends to reinforce the sense that locally significant work is somehow second-rate. Especially in research-intensive universities, professorial promotion exercises can also unwittingly stigmatise civic engagement. The need to demonstrate ‘international impact’ can mean that more local activity goes unrewarded. More tangibly, UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) needs to be encouraged to maintain and enhance its newly found interest in place-based funding. The civic remains a remarkably underdeveloped category, even within the UKRI Place Toolkit. It is surely time to rectify that anomaly.

These are relatively obvious suggestions. A more radical approach would consider how students could be incentivised to stay in local institutions. The current funding system pays no real attention to geography. Might one that actively rewards those who stay closer to home be worth considering? By the same token, should more research funding be devolved to local or regional boards? Might local authorities even become fund-holders in their own right, commissioning work that will directly improve the lives of citizens? Not all solutions will come from the state. The original civic universities would not have been brought into being without philanthropy. We need to reflect on what policies will encourage individuals and businesses to donate to their local university. They will need more than just the opportunity of having a building named after them. What tax incentives could be considered to facilitate such local giving? 

Universities are not businesses, however businesslike they need to be. Even well-considered financial inducements will not, in the long run, fully counteract the in-built tendency of these institutions to flee from the civic. What they also need is a convincing intellectual rationale for seeking more local engagement. The serious study of their own histories is key to this, because it will not only show the centrality of the civic to their very existence, but also remind them of the ways in which they have repeatedly lost sight of that. Further work justifying the integration of the civic into the curriculum and student volunteering into degree programmes would be of equal value. Universities need to demonstrate what pedagogical benefits this would provide, as well as what career advantages it would give to graduates. They need also to think about how it could help academics’ own research. 

This re-emphasis on the civic could, as a consequence, have positive effects for the towns and cities in which these institutions are located. It would enrich students’ studies and scholars’ research. It would also have the singular benefit of helping to diversify higher education in England. The same forces that drove universities away from the civic also encouraged a uniformity. Just like Birmingham over a century ago, the great research universities became the model emulated by all. As Lord Kerslake once observed, not all universities need to be civic universities. But many really ought to be. Any tension between the university and the civic can be – and will be – a truly creative one, if only universities, government and other funders encourage it.  

Professor William Whyte

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