Eyes on the prize – time for university leaders to rethink civic engagement

Wills Memorial, Bristol

Alongside major public sector organisations like hospitals and councils, universities are anchor institutions in their cities and regions. Their influence will be manifested in a range of different ways, some deliberate and explicit, some unintended. The prize available for those organisations with the imagination and ambition to see their role firmly in the context of the place they are based in is considerable.

Universities can be powerhouses of change and impact in their communities. But to be a powerhouse is a choice that the leaders of our universities must be proactive in making. It will involve time and risk: committing resources to an agenda based on a shared understanding of ‘place’ is rarely recognised in the traditional metrics used to evaluate the success of institutions. However, there are also opportunities. I anticipate that we will see the emergence of many more groups of civic leaders, accelerated by the devolution agenda which implicitly demands that leaders act in a more civic way. Universities and the people who run them are among the best placed to lead this change. Here’s why:

Firstly, the intellectual resources which universities embody and connect to are considerable. Even if there was a relatively modest increase in research with a local and translational aim, the potential impact in places like Bristol (where I work) is significant.

Secondly, universities are ideal custodians of long-term, high impact work. There is a strong argument that ambitious programmes in areas like ‘resilience’ will find a better home in a university than somewhere like a local council. Universities can commit to, and secure funding for, work over the long term in a way that few other organisations can.

Working as part of a network has always been a natural approach for universities. It has allowed them to bring two things to the civic table: a level of skill in, and familiarity with, partnership working that not all major public institutions will have. Broad networks also lead to a broadness of perspective on the civic dialogue based on their experience of working with others.

The importance of this latter point is profound and often underestimated. In many ways, the real challenge that we face with a place-based agenda is not one of structure or coordination but one of creativity. It is as much a challenge of imagination as it is process. It’s about being creative in the way in which we use local organisations and networks to facilitate joint working and to connect local capability to local challenges. Universities often have more of the creative and imaginative culture needed to do this well.

However, such a culture brings its own challenges, particularly around legitimacy and accountability. The need to be imaginative must be consistent with the statutory levers and mechanisms that govern any system. For example, don’t expect major changes to the built environment without engaging with the planning system first.

Such engagement is crucial for the accountability and legitimacy that is required to drive any ambitious civic change. Simply put, universities need to ‘put themselves out there’: connect to the public and then demonstrate how their voice has shaped the work of institutions.

Demonstrating the value of a public role to students is a challenge, particularly given the rise in fees and shifting expectations, and given that after graduating, many will not stay in the country let alone the local vicinity.

Arguing against broader civic work because of a lack of ‘value added’ to the student experience betrays a profoundly depressing view of the role and potential of universities. There has to be a balance, but I would be prepared to speculate that universities that made a civic agenda part of their strategy, and build it into their programmes, would reap the reward by creating distinct identities (the ‘offer’) and attracting students accordingly. And students who leave the area taking a new civic mindset with them could also act as powerful champions of the university in the long-term.

The potential for universities to play a profoundly positive role in the places they are rooted in is enormous. But there are missed opportunities every day.  It boils down to leadership – do senior leaders have a real sense of a shared civic responsibility and agenda? Some leaders do operate in this way, but plenty don’t – yet. My sense is that the prize will be considerable for those leaders who try.

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