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

The public’s view of the civic

Estimated Read time: 11 Mins

In 1904-5, leaflets went out across Sheffield seeking donations towards the establishment of a new university in the city. They read:

You should support the new university because:

The university will be for the people.

The university will bring the highest education within the reach of the child of the working man.

The university will help the local industries.

The university will be the centre where the treatment of accidents and diseases will be studied.

Sheffield is the only large City in England without a University. Sheffield cannot afford to remain in this position.

The university will not only benefit this district, it will assist the nation in its trade competition with other nations.

What strikes me is how modern these words seem. Little has changed.

Except one big thing. The people of Sheffield responded. Miners, steelworkers and others gave their penny donations and raised the equivalent of £15 million. These were the relatively decently paid but nevertheless working-class people who wanted to support themselves, their children and their city. (Comparators of income are difficult, but on some estimates a miner would have been on the equivalent of around £35,000 a year.) 

The university also responded. As was the case for many of the original civic universities, non-degree teaching was a major part of its original offer. Courses covered ‘topics as diverse as cow-keeping, railway economics, mining and razor-grinding’.

This story inspired Lord Kerslake, and it inspired me. 

I am not sure that the same thing would happen today, in a large place without a university. I would love to be proved wrong, but I am unconvinced that the money would be raised, and I am equally unconvinced that a new university would be as responsive to local workers in its teaching.

Why not?

First, there are some global trends that explain the change. We now have a much bigger state. We do not rely on penny donations because these days we pay tax, and we expect the government to fund institutions. In 1904, tax stood at less than 10 per cent of our (much smaller) gross domestic product. Today it is nearly 37 per cent.

Secondly, driven substantially by public demand and funded by some of that increased taxation, a nationally conceived universal education system has emerged – which has resulted in an inexorable increase in education participation throughout the 20th and 21st century, to its current state. In the 1900s, less than 6 per cent of 14-16 year olds were still in school. Now they almost all are,while more than 83 per cent (with some variation year on year) of 17 year olds and around 25 per cent of 18-24 year olds are in education. We think of mass education as a basic right – not something requiring special effort to establish. Research, too, has been effectively nationalised and largely government-funded since the end of World War One.

These are global phenomena. Few readers would wish to turn the clock back, and they would fail if they tried.

But there are also some special conditions. The UK is an unusually centralised country, and has recently become even more so. For universities, as with almost every other institution, the focus is on national – not local – government policy, and this weakens local attachment. 

That is partly about where students go. Unlike Europe, we have a university system that is academically differentiated. That in turn means that it is culturally acceptable, and even often expected, to travel to university (though there are huge ethnic and socio-economic divides). But we are an outlier even by that measure. In America, which is also highly academically differentiated, far fewer students leave home.

It is also about funding and control. In the US, local funding is a significant source of many universities’ revenue. Regional funding also matters in many European countries. And in the UK, the teaching funding that is centralised is, of course, mostly funnelled through individuals in the form of loans, not directly to institutions. The teaching grant has declined and, outside specific subjects like medicine, institutions are not ‘awarded’ student places. Universities, by and large, are not awarded revenue for teaching – students are.

There is direct university funding in research, but it is neither driven by local concerns nor controlled by places. Research is ever more globally focused – and research-intensive universities see their peers, critics and users as international, not national – and certainly not local. 

Finally, in the UK, particularly recently, adult education has declined. The courses put on by the original civic universities – including Sheffield – were often non-degree, short, flexible and aimed at people already in the labour market. The miners and steelworkers of Sheffield were getting something for themselves, not just for their children. That would not be true today.

We do not have good longitudinal perceptions data, but I think these changes have weakened the sense of ownership and reciprocity between universities and their communities.

How might we strengthen them again?

The original Civic University Commission that Bob Kerslake chaired did not suggest returning to 1904. Instead, we suggested applying two public tests to universities. First, do local people talk about ‘“our university” with pride and awareness’? Second, does a university know what its local public wants, and is it responding to that?

Let us discuss the state of both now. First, do local people talk about ‘our university’?

In our focus groups, for the Civic University Commission and in other research since, we have generally found that they do not. Local people are fairly positive about their local universities. They are just also largely uninformed. The public certainly likes its universities more than media coverage would suggest. That was true when Public First did the original polling for the Civic University Commission, and it has been true in every round of polling we have done since, whether for individual universities or nationally for the UPP Foundation. Positive pride outstrips negative perceptions by some margin (although in smaller cities, irritation over housing and business rates unquestionably creeps in). 

But local people know little about what universities actually do. That is particularly true of those from lower socio-economic groups – the lower middle class and skilled working class as well as the most deprived – who are much less likely to interact with their local universities or know specifics about what universities do. Class also made a big difference to whether ‘studentification’ was an irritant or a benefit, with non-graduates more likely to perceive issues with housing, for example.

When people are told about the contributions made by their local university (for example, graphene development in Manchester) they are pleased and say that they wished they had been told more:

I had never heard of [graphene being discovered in Manchester]. Is that because we’re supposed to take the time to find out? I think that’s the type of thing I’d like to see put on social media or something, let’s be proud!

Female, 34, buyer for a hotel chain, C2, Greater Manchester

The graphene example demonstrates that people want to be proud of their university – but it also shows their lack of knowledge. Manchester University has talked a lot about graphene, but local people still had not heard of it. Unfortunately, as politicians have found to their cost, it is immensely difficult to get people to notice what you are doing, particularly in an era of low local-newspaper readership. Being noticed and heard requires intensive, focused and deliberative effort over long periods. Universities frequently underestimate what is required. 

Of course, thousands of local jobs emerging from graphene discovery would be noticed. Here, our culture and policy framework is often lacking. Focusing on areas of research with plausible local industrial consequences would help universities pass the civic test, as would joining up education and industry. We still do not do this well. To give one technical example, the ‘impact’ metric in the Research Excellence Framework has a slightly tortuous and implausible link between individual research papers and some kind of real-world impact. It rarely is, or needs to be, local industrial or economic success

What, beyond major local industrial success, might make local people talk about ‘our university’ more? From the original Civic University Commission evidence sessions, three moments stick. 

First, a man from a working-class background, now professionally involved in a large university, gave evidence to the commission. His first encounter had been through his mother, who had attended night school for large periods of his childhood. It had mattered to his family, and changed how he viewed universities. If universities want to pass the public test, then older non-professionals should be training in universities. They will see the university as a place for them, and so will their children.

Second, evidence from one of our experts pointed to the traditional role civic universities played in educating the local political and business leaders of a place. As localism has declined, the depth of the link between local universities and local elites also feels weaker. There is not much that universities alone can do about this, but they can take advantage of increased devolution. Civic universities should have programmes to educate local-authority workers (who are also, incidentally, a group who could benefit enormously from training in the use of AI, since they often do precisely the bureaucratic and white-collar work where AI is most likely to increase productivity). Public-sector jobs are often the entry professions for socially mobile groups. Universities already serve this in teaching and nursing – and it is one of their core civic roles.

Third, one of the most effective programmes we heard about in the original commission was also in Manchester – where the university had made an active attempt to hire and train non-academic staff from nearby deprived wards of the city. That provides better job opportunities for people in those wards, but it also – again – has a concentrated impact on perceptions.

Provide more adult education, train more of the local political and bureaucratic elite and hire locally, and over the next two to three decades many more local people will think of universities as theirs. Since universities are supposed to exist for centuries, if not millennia, this is a pretty short time frame.

The second test? Whether the university ‘knows what its local public wants and is responding to it’.

What do people want from their local university? When people are asked this question explicitly, facilities rarely feature. Perhaps, as Tim Leunig suggests in this essay collection, that is because while many universities do open up their facilities, it is in an insufficiently deep way. 

I suspect though that, as with private schools, endless offers to share facilities do not work for two reasons. First, because people do not really feel like they have any ownership of them (correctly). They are not Victorian parks or libraries. They are not public spaces, and can be closed at any time. Second, because modern university facilities are not what local people want from universities. 

What, then, do local people want? Largely they say local education, locally impactful research and the provision of a locally skilled workforce. In other words, the core mission of the university.

This is very important and – in my view – has been insufficiently internalised by universities since the Civic University Commission’s report was published. Local people do not primarily want universities to engage in ancillary activity. They do not see them as just any big local institution and employer. They want universities to use their core functions – educating people in a way that is useful to employers and doing impactful research – for the good of local people. Any serious civic university should be polling and talking to local people regularly about what they want to see – and I suspect they will find that the research of the commission several years ago still holds true.

But if we want universities to respond, we need to make sure that the incentives work in their favour. It is unreasonable to assume a major civic movement will emerge when all of the major financial and regulatory incentives are national.

Which brings me back to the two big UK-centric changes that have occurred since the penny donations to Sheffield: removal of local funding and decline in adult learning. Shifting those two would help universities meet the public test, because it would align money to local people and demands.

For example, if local areas – perhaps combined authorities – controlled funding to double the teaching grant on subjects of local economic importance, or even to fund significant research streams in those areas, it would change the orientation of the university. And if the lifelong learning entitlement were truly universal and applied to almost all courses (with quality checks), however short they are, many more adults would be able to train.

There is a common thread that links the stories of the past and what people want in the present. The desire to have a university ‘for the people’, expressed predominantly through education and employment, remains. The practical manifestation – supporting children and young people but also adult education, and a deeper link between practical research and the improvement of a place – is remarkably similar. Of course, what people will learn, and the industries that will be supported, are different. But if we want civic universities to meet the public test, we need universities to understand the consistent nature of what local people want. And we must change our teaching and research funding systems to incentivise universities to respond. 

Rachel Wolf

Estimated Read time: 11 Mins

View next essays