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.