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The Kerslake Collection | Social purposes

The role of universities in supporting arts and culture 

The power of place

Place is key to shaping the next generation of policy thinking within the context of UK devolution. The role of place is especially important to universities. Higher-education institutions (HEIs) are often defined by their place – it’s in their names – and have anchor-institution status in their civic realm. They hold together multiple offers – social, economic and cultural – of and for their location. 

For universities in devolved regions and nations, the place agenda in policymaking has led to a renewed focus on lived relations between town and gown, as well as civic relationships with, and responsibilities to, the communities that live and work in a place. Some places have more than one HEI. In a context of devolution, this higher-education capacity can strengthen civic identity, cultural cohesion and ecosystems of innovation. Place is also a material factor in where students choose to study and stay after graduation. It matters to graduate-employment statistics, industrial-strategy planning and inward investment into a region. 

Following the work of the Civic University Commission – which led universities to focus their civic engagement more strategically – many HEIs developed their own civic strategies and executive roles for heads of place, partnerships and public engagement. Alongside this, there been a proliferation of HE-related civic engagement, public engagement and impact-related bodies, established to facilitate closer working between HEIs and local communities. In practice, this agglomeration of interest has led to the potential for mission creep or the overlapping of intentions. Many organisations – including the National Coordinating Centre for Public Engagement, National Centre for Academic and Cultural Exchange, and Universities Policy Engagement Network, as well as universities and businesses – share similar civic or place-based aims. Their delivery of support, funding or sharing of best practice for universities is intended to enhance their relationships with local places. This proliferation of HE civic-impact and engagement organisations and their separate strategies can only cohere to make meaningful change if they are concerned with and represent all stakeholders in a position to promote and enable inclusive growth through wider devolutionary policy agendas. 

The headline aggregate economic evidence proves that decentralisation works to tackle income inequality, health disparity and productivity differentials across our regions and nations. Driving regional growth and making that work for everyone is key to connecting HEIs into working together, to drive jobs and skills, and to connect our strong research and development (RandD) base and skills provision, our networks, and our assets. Although universities and creative industries may sometimes look like unlikely allies, inclusive innovation means opening seats around the table of power and welcoming new faces into the discussion on ways to deliver for our institutions and regions. Because this is also about investment and innovation, the case a place puts forward for investment must be credible, and universities can help to inform this. An inclusive growth model is not just about driving headline economic performance, but about how we develop self-determination in our models of growth and prosperity, to co-author the future of a place in which we all want to share.

Devolution revolution

Today, many of our HEIs are operating in devolved contexts. This is part of a wider pivot to place in politics and in policymaking, which seeks to decentralise decision-making away from Westminster and return agency to sub-regional level. Devolution has put the place agenda at the heart of policymaking, with a new ask to local areas to deliver budgets and policy across priorities, including skills, culture, health and transport. When it works, the place-making function of devolution is a centrapetalising force: one that attracts in excellence, shares practice, draws inward investment and enhances reputation. The ‘tier four’ devolution agreements or ‘trailblazer deals’ awarded by government to combined authorities enable single-pot funding settlements and extended powers over culture. Importantly, this unlocks the ability of combined authorities to harness the cultural assets of a place, and amplify them as part of the distinct identity of the region, and an important element of their universities’ offer. 

Universities have the potential to be vital partners for effective devolution. Devolution offers the opportunity to reflect on the unique selling points of a place and how we can tesselate the universities’ offer, using devolved levers from tourism to transport, to culture and capacity-investment funds. Devolution can bring the people and organisations of a place closer to their HEIs, by convening cross-sector communities of experts and graduate talent, and drawing together university partners to underpin capacity building in the development of combined authorities. The delivery agreement underpinning the North East Combined Authority (NECA) illustrates some of the more innovative ways in which devolution can facilitate collaboration and unlock innovation. Through its cross-sector approach to working and transversal take on opportunity areas, such as skills, culture and policy, the devolution deal shows how devolution can connect policymaking to the lived experience of communities and the expertise of their universities. 

The creative industries are described in the 2022 Department for Culture, Media and Sport policy paper ‘Creative industries sector vision’ as businesses with creativity at their heart – including design, music, publishing, architecture, film and video, crafts, visual arts, fashion, TV and radio, advertising, literature, computer games and the performing arts. Together, the creative industries are an identified area of growth and international excellence in the UK economy, and have been identified by HM Treasury as one of their top three priority areas for investment and scaling up. Within that context, the potential of devolved administrations and their HEIs to unlock the skills, networks and investment needed to catalyse this growth is key to embedding the creative industries as part of a truly inclusive industrial strategy at a local level, with national impacts. Universities have a key role to play in catalysing place-making through their relationships with our creative industries. Place-making is not just about central government money: it is about creating investable propositions at a local level. Through co-created trailblazer deals, such as the 2024 NECA deal, it is possible to see how and why collaboration around the culture portfolio of devolution deals can help drive deliverables in aligned areas, such as skills, transport, RandD and pride in place, across a whole devolved region or nation. 

The case for culture

The role of universities and creative industries in place-making is key to delivering devolution of power and the UK creative industries, from their London base and into the regions and nations in a way that is sustainable and equitable. Supporting community resilience and readiness for change through investment, engagement and production, universities have a unique role to play in delivering devolution and in informing place-powered policymaking for culture and creative industries. Through new civic relations and strategic alignment, HEIs can work with the new levers of their devolved contexts, to operationalise a decentralisation of power that is driven by innovation and creates investable propositions for inclusive growth. This can involve HEIs working with combined authorities to co-develop investment funds that are shaped by the opportunities of creative industry growth within a place-based context. Through closer partnership working, HEIs can better inform policymaking at a devolved level, to enhance the resilience and sustainability of culture and connect it to the latest RandD and student experience. This would ensure that everyone has access to creativity, and that decentralisation of power is informed by and can inform innovation at every stage. 

In recent years, UK universities have extended their role as place-shapers through increasing investments like this in creativity and culture. The part this plays in shaping the thinking of the current generation of university leaders is evident in the role of universities as anchor cultural institutions, and in the fact that some HEIs receive investment from Arts Council England (ACE). From Derby Theatre, based at Derby University, to the Institute of Cultural and Creative Industries at the University of Kent, and Teesside University’s Middlesborough Institute of Modern Art, ACE investment in partnership with HEIs shows how we can work together to enhance the lives of everyone in our communities. 

In one sense, collaboration is nothing new. There has been a long tradition in the UK of arts centres, museums, concert halls, galleries and theatres being a central element of – and directly funded by – their local HEI, or situated on their campuses. For generations, these spaces have provided inspiration and enjoyment to students, staff and those living in university towns and cities, and have helped to shape and define the creative and cultural lives of those places. What has shifted in recent years is the power of these partnerships in shaping HEIs’ strategy on civic mission and inward investment, as well as the role of universities in unlocking opportunities for everyone in their place-based context. 

Devolution can also enable the co-design of new academic portfolios, in response to identified skills needs. This will help to secure a sustainable talent pipeline, which will support staffing in new creative industry areas. Northumbria University – based in Newcastle, in the North East of England – offers a useful example of how HEIs can approach cultural partnerships as a stylistic trait of delivering to the needs and opportunities of devolution in a place-based setting. Northumbria’s cultural partnerships with local and national creative organisations are at the core of the university strategy, are central to how the university conceives of itself as an institution, and are fundamental to shaping its civic role, responsibility and engagement when it comes to widening participation. The HEI has an ambitious and distinct portfolio of formal strategic partnership agreements with several national cultural organisations, such as the British Film Institute, as well as with many ACE-funded organisations in the North East, including New Writing North, the Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art, Live Theatre and Tyne and Wear Archives and Museums. Together, they collaborate through joint portfolio development in teaching and learning, creating new research and knowledge exchange, and co-creating impact and public engagement. 

This tripartite approach generates shared knowledge, furthers cross-sector understanding and creates added value for students, researchers and professional colleagues. Economically, it adds value and extends the impact of the investment made by ACE in non-profit organisations. It creates a more diverse and sustainable investment mix in the city, as well as a more resilient base for the range of cultural partners that work with the new combined authority. Some partnerships can be perceived as surface-level memoranda of understanding between organisations – or ‘dual logoing’, where each institution proudly displays the logo of the other ­‑ but in practice there is little collaboration. But Northumbria’s cultural partnerships are defined by a deep focus on measurable knowledge exchange and inclusive innovation, and by their explicit link to policymaking via a relationship with the local devolved authority. Unlocking opportunity, extending the reach of new research and developing a sustainable RandD ecosystem across the cultural and creative industries in the North of England and connecting them to wider devolution developments, such cultural partnerships, enable students, staff and industry to inform the evolution of devolution through culture. 

Higher-education institutions are important as cultural brokers, but the role that creativity and culture have in making and shaping place is about more than just the needs of any single institution. Across the last decade, ACE and the Department for Culture, Media and Sport have encouraged the creation of Cultural Compacts across England. These compacts are partnerships designed to help the local cultural sector, building its contribution to the development of a strong creative and cultural ecology, which can drive economic and social benefits for our villages, towns and cities. The compacts ensure that conversations about creative and cultural investment are cross-sector, focusing on the needs of the whole community, while recognising that universities have a vital part to play in these discussions and in these compacts. Building partnerships involving the whole community is a model that ACE uses at every level of its place-based work. It forms the basis of its successful Creative People and Places projects, and it is also seen in its approach in its Priority Places. ACE works closely with local government – the democratically elected representatives of an area – considering them a key partner in their place agenda. HEIs are vital to compacts, and provide a RandD capacity and connection to expertise and evidence that help to co-create priorities and decision-making about cultural strategy and spend. 

The co-production of place is core to creating change. This means unlocking the ivory tower and making our campuses and talent porous to devolved settings. Connecting our universities to the needs and opportunities of devolved contexts means bringing people together to stimulate activity in the economy of a place. Through bidirectional secondments – where experts from HEIs go to work in combined authorities, and colleagues from the combined authorities come into HEIs on strategic projects – we can strengthen knowledge and understanding and generate new ways of working that foster co-creation as standard. In terms of policymaking, this means working with HEI-driven think tanks and policy institutes and uniting their proposals with the development of new combined authorities’ delivery boards, to ensure that planning for devolution is underpinned by the best data and evidence sharing. Working beyond silos, refusing to stay in a professional lane and reaching out to offer resource, support and capacity are key elements of this wider behavioural change, which is necessary if we are to foster effective operational relations between an HEI and a devolved authority.

This is not always easy in practice, nor straightforward in delivery. Cross-sector collaboration requires different mechanisms, negotiation and translation, which are often inhibited by the frameworks in which we function. Culture and collaboration are key levers for levelling up, yet both our UK higher-education and innovation systems prioritise competition. Everything from degree grading to university league tables and funding awards forces universities to compete rather than to collaborate with other regional HEIs. There is a danger that if devolution is created in isolation, and not co-constructed with the full range of people and partners of a place, it will not work in the long term. The challenge of how to build a more inclusive innovation system that unlocks knowledge co-creation is best addressed through a different approach to devolution – as an opportunity to reject rather than replicate the existing structural inequalities that have shaped our current systems. 

Empowering through policy

Collaborative policymaking that focuses on harnessing the role of culture and creative industries in delivering devolution and the levelling-up agenda has a key role to play in enhancing education and skills, health and wellbeing and civic identity in a place-based context. Universities’ civic role in devolution is about sowing the seeds of a future society, developed as settlements through co-production change and purposeful investment, which make our places attractive areas to live and work. To catalyse this existing base in policy terms, we need further support for new interventions and infrastructure at national and regional levels. 

It also means HEIs working more closely with other institutions – notably the Arts and Humanities Research Council and ACE – and developments, including the government’s review of ACE in 2024, as well as broader alignment with UK and devolved government priorities on innovation and culture. This would ensure that there are opportunities for everyone to contribute and engage. For universities, there needs to be a greater focus on policy that facilitates the development of partnerships as a key strategic commitment to levelling up and place-making. In terms of arts and culture, this is about generating better evidence on the social and economic contributions of higher education and research to society, as well as facilitating social mobility and ensuring cultural diversity. 

Devolution affords agency to advocate using culture and creativity, nationally and internationally, to connect audiences, publics, partners and investors to a single coherent message about the offer of a place and its people. The aim of devolving culture is then to enhance delivery and reach, adding value and expanding access to put local people and places at the heart of decision-making. The anticipated benefits of cultural devolution include an increase in cultural engagement and participation across the UK, a rise in numbers taking creative GCSE, A-level, degree and adult-skills courses, an increase in the number of creative and cultural businesses registered in the region, and an uptick in creative innovation investment from RandD funders. 

There is a need for new policies from central government and funders in all forms, which not only recognises but rewards civic engagement and place-making in a context of increasing pressures on HEI resources and the challenge of creating a socially inclusive and economically sustainable innovation ecosystem for a future UK. Funders could also explore new policy that commits to training the next generation of higher-education staff and professional colleagues in collaborative working and partnership skills, including leading across sectors. Universities have a unique role to play in collaborating to support this, by growing greater knowledge exchange and a better evidence base of what works and where opportunities for growth and scale up lie across the UK. 

Co-creating culture

Devolution in England is in its early phases, and the creative industries are emerging from this period as key to early-stage change-making. Sharing best practice in partnership working between HEIs and the creative industries across the UK is vital to catalysing understanding, growth and investment opportunities. The civic-universities network and aligned organisations are also sharing learning, but there remains profound variation in the centrality of a place-making purpose and a clear and meaningful civic strategy across the spectrum of UK HEIs today. Through effective policymaking, co-created across sectors, we can unlock the opportunity of our HEIs for the communities and cultural partners in their places and spaces. In this way, we will create a more equitable and sustainable system of creative exchange and inclusive innovation, hand in hand with funding partners, such as ACE. 

The economist John Maynard Keynes famously said that the economy works based on animal spirits. The key question of devolution for universities is how to create thriving places that are empowered to tell their own story and develop their own imagination about who they want to be, and the role our institutions can and should play in making that happen. It means universities co-authoring that story about where their place needs to go in future, and having conversations with their communities about what good looks like. The story of place cannot be written in isolation, and it cannot be dictated by Whitehall. There must be a compulsion on universities and the arts to engage with the environment of devolution and of place-making, to ensure that they do not disappear from policy platforms. That way, we’ll be able to trust that the insight and expertise from the regions are fit for purpose for the future. 

Darren Henley CBE and Professor Katy Shaw

Estimated Read time: 16 Mins

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