This article is more than 2 years old

Are universities “civic washing”?

In 2019, some 59 vice chancellors committed to developing a civic university agreement. Jonathan Grant isn't thrilled with progress since
This article is more than 2 years old

Jonathan Grant is director of Different Angles and a contributing editor of Wonkhe

There is a gap between rhetoric around civic engagement and what universities do in practice.

This matters – because it gives a false impression about their commitment to their local communities undermining, over time, their reputation and the broader reputation of the sector.

The risk of “civic washing” was highlighted at the end of last year, when PA Consultancy reported that vice chancellors are increasingly prioritising regional impact “focusing their universities’ future identity and income streams on their local community’s social and economic needs.”

This belated acknowledgement of community must be welcomed – but how much of it is a tactical response to the government’s levelling up agenda and how much of this is a real shift in the social purpose of higher education institutions?


In 2019 the UPP Foundation published its Truly Civic report, making a number of recommendations, including the need for the for civic university agreements which are “co-created and signed by other key civic partners.”

As I noted in the New Power University, while I welcomed this initiative I was, and remain, concerned whether such agreements would become symbolic as opposed to being truly civic – by which I mean community-led engagement that improves the lives of local people.

Accompanying the launch of Truly Civic, 59 vice chancellors committed to developing civic university agreements. To appease my concerns about the potentially “tick box-ery” nature of these commitments I recently followed up with the Civic University Network (which was established to see through the delivery of Truly Civic’s recommendations) to see how many universities had followed through on these proclamations.

It turned out that ten civic university agreements were in place covering 17 universities (some agreements covered a number of institutions). Of the 59 universities who made a public commitment to their local communities, only 14 had actually followed through with it by the end of 2021.

Civic washing? Perhaps, but I would be the first to acknowledge the impact of Covid-19 and how over the last two years universities have had other priorities, so I decided to look at another indicator – accreditation in paying a living wage to a university’s lowest paid staff.

Live and let live

Let’s be clear what this means. A living wage is the amount that someone needs to live in dignity. The Living Wage Foundation calculates this to be £9.90 an hour (£11.05 in London), which is above the statutory minimum wage of £8.91 (rising to £9.50 in April). Confusingly, the government rebranded the minimum wage as the “national living wage” (for those aged 23 and over) in 2015 conflating the two, much to the persistent outrage of the financial commentator Martin Lewis.

To further muddy the waters employers have adopted the language of the “voluntary living wage” where they claim to pay the level determined by the Living Wage Foundation but are not accredited in doing so. This contrasts with the “real living wage” which is when an employer is accredited by the Living Wage Foundation as paying the living wage.

In 2019, 38 higher education institutions in the UK were accredited with the Living Wage Foundation. Put another way, over 100 universities were arguably exploiting their lowest pay workers – a fact that is only partly tempered by more recent data which now sees 52 universities accredited. But what of those 59 who said they wanted to support their local communities through a civic university agreement?

Twenty-three of the 59 (39 percent) are accredited as paying a living wage, 19 (or 32 percent) claim they are paying a living wage but are not accredited, and 17 (29 percent) neither claim to be paying nor are accredited. Of the universities that have walked the talk in developing a civic university agreement six are accredited, seven claim to pay it and four seemingly do not.

Credit where due

First, let’s acknowledge the leadership of those four universities that said they would develop a civic university agreement, developed one and are accredited as paying the living wage – along with those two who did not initially commit to a civic university agreement in 2019 but nonetheless have developed one and are accredited living wage payers.

And shame on those 14 institutions that have committed to a civic university agreement but have not delivered on that and apparently don’t pay a living wage. It’s the worst example of opportunistic instrumentalism in the sector.

The interesting group are those 19 institutions that claim to pay the voluntary living wage but are not accredited with the Living Wage Foundation. I wanted to understand why so I scurried around their websites and found several explanations – the main one being the perceived risk to their autonomy in having an external, non-statutory, body setting pay structures.

I am not sure I buy into that argument, but I am willing to acknowledge it as a valid position. That said it is a very opaque approach that does not allow the university to be held to account by its local community, can be a way of avoiding paying onsite contractors, such as cleaners and security guards, a living wage and hinders the type of analysis presented here.

Washing the detectives

So is there a risk of civic washing? The short answer is yes.

It is inexcusable that some universities claim to be civic but are unwilling to support their local communities in paying a living wage. The local impact of universities occurs through the way they operate, as well as through their education and research missions.

I fully accept that being an accredited living wage payer may be an inadequate indicator of a university’s social purpose. But when it is accompanied with public declarations of being civic, I think it is fair and appropriate to question motivations – and to conclude that there is indeed evidence of civic washing in a significant and damaging minority of higher education institutions in the UK.

9 responses to “Are universities “civic washing”?

  1. This fits with Jonathan Grant’s penchant for pot stirring. It fits with Chapter 8 of his otherwise stimulating New Power University polemic where he reveals his scepticism about place based civic engagement.. He fails to acknowledge that most universities are on a journey. The partners working through Civic University Network in the UK are supporting individual universities on this journey. This includes seeking to link up the higher education, research and territorial development policy environments within which universities operate. Plugging the UK into the global discourse in this space is an important tool to this end. And in this regard a focus on a single UK indicator- the living wage – is not helpful
    John Goddard
    Professor of Universities and Cities
    University of Birmingham

    1. I think the looking to a single indicator is a function of not having other tangible or visible indicators available nor the resources to carry out any formal methods. What other data should universities be offering to demonstrate their progress on this pathway? What indicators do we think would be an adequate measure?

      1. Measurement is of course both important and difficult. Whatever form it takes, I believe it should recognise the diversity of ways that universities have impacts on their places, the diversity of those places, and the diversity of forms of HEIs themselves and their civic missions. I don’t think there is one right model of ‘civic’, nor one single magic indicator of civicness. Having an honest, reflexive view of civic mission and where an institution is at along the road to that mission is important. This needs also to genuinely involve the input of communities and civic partners. The CUN has developed a Civic Framework to help guide thinking on the broad areas of potential civic impact that universities can have, together with ways of beginning to measure progress against these.

  2. Jonathan: Pleased that you referenced PA’s survey of vice-chancellors, which indeed suggested strong moves across the sector towards civic engagement as a strategic mission. However, I’m not clear why you have homed in on Living Wage payments to university staff as the test of this commitment. Our survey finding was based on the high proportions of VCs assigning top level strategic priority to (a) “recruiting from under-represented and/or local student groups” (60%), and (b) “supporting local or sectoral economic and workforce needs”(45%). These indicators of local and sectoral impacts do not tell the whole story, but they do emphasise outward-facing and problem-facing collaborations as key markers of civic universities – what Ron Barnett has called being “universities for others”. Paying the Living Wage, however desirable, is surely a marker for the internal corporate responsibilities of universities, that actually contributes little to their external engagement or societal impacts.

  3. Mike – this is a fair point but as I note towards the end of my piece “The local impact of universities occurs through the way they operate, as well as through their education and research missions.” So I agree with the education and training impacts – and welcome those – but also argue that how you operate matters. It seems illogical to me that you claim to be training your local workshop but at the same time not paying a living wage to your lowest paid staff.

    To respond to the other two comments, part of the challenge here is how you measure this stuff and again as I acknowledge neither having a CUA or accrediting with the LWF are perfect indicators but they are indicators, and in my view helpful ones.

    And to John, I agree we are on a journey and it is a really important one that I am fully behind – but it is not a new one as you work demonstrates. More importantly actions must be more important that words and that is what I am calling out.

    So I am all for better indicators, more action and greater commitment to the civic agenda.

  4. Newcastle is one of the universities which has a Civic University Agreement (with Northumbria University) and accredited for our commitment to the Real Living Wage. As a major employer spending millions in the local economy, we can make a difference, so our strategy includes our education, research, but also how we operate. As part of Collaborative Newcastle we have a commitment to social value procurement and net zero by 2030. The other key thing is joint leadership programmes – the more we can understand and build relationships with our partners and communities, the greater the benefit for everyone.

  5. Jonathan – point taken, universities should certainly exemplify the societal principals they purport to promote. Mre geerally, what these comments highlight is the lack of, and need for, an agreed way of measuring and demonstrating the social and economic impacts of universities working in collaborations with civic partners. Since ‘impact’ is felt, perceived and judged by its beneficiaries, it surely follows that any scheme of measurement should be set and recognised (at least in part) by the external stakeholders, that is, from the outside in. Perhaps we should look at the starts made in other sectors, such as ?

  6. I agree with both Jane and Mike’s comments above – as well as having a local impact by paying a living wage, thinking about how you can buy locally will also have an impact on local communities (beyond education and research). And, as Mike notes, the challenge here is to develop a way to capture these ‘operational’ impacts (in the private sector there lots of frameworks out there. See: I have long thought the framing of social value is something that could/should be adopted by universities and comes at little cost to the institution but provides potentially great value to a locality.

  7. There are no details of which universities fall into which categories – I would be interested to seeing the list of if that is possible

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