How universities can help to level up towns

New polling for the UPP Foundation highlights what universities need to do to support post-industrial towns. Richard Brabner introduces the findings.

While various academics, think tanks, and politicians have been talking about towns for some time – it wasn’t until the infamous “Red Wall” came crumbling down and levelling up rose as a concern that this agenda has taken centre stage politically.

Whatever the reasoning, the focus on towns is overdue and welcome. Polling released today by the UPP Foundation confirms there are stark differences between how people living in cities and towns feel their local areas are faring: 30 per cent of people who live in cities say that their local area has improved (39 per cent the same, 25 per cent worse), this figure decreases to 22 per cent of those who live in large towns, and only 17 per cent for those who live in small towns.

But for all the talk of the importance of people living in towns, the policy cupboard still looks a little bare. What, concretely, does levelling up mean? Our polling is part of a project we are working on with Public First to help understand this precise question – and specifically, to look at the civic role of universities in post-industrial towns.

As readers of Wonkhe may recall, one of the recommendations from our Civic University Commission report last year was for the government to establish a £500m “Civic University Fund” to help universities grow their civic impact to places facing social and economic hardship. Our new report, coming out in the Spring, will turn this recommendation into a concrete proposal.

The polling has helped us understand what the public’s priorities are for improving their local communities and what role non-government actors like universities could play. So, what do the results mean for universities? Well let’s start with the good news.

The good news

The public are generally positive about universities. 59 per cent want them to play a greater role in supporting their local area. In all regions, universities are seen to be positively delivering for their local communities.

Perhaps unsurprisingly the public think that universities’ main civic responsibilities are to do with education. Both inspiring school children to think about their future in education, and developing closer links with schools and colleges rank highly.

We also asked the public to select things that a university working in partnership with others could do to improve their local area. Out of the options available the public were most supportive of localising a university’s economic footprint. They want institutions to hire locally (selected by 27 per cent), to purchase locally (24 per cent), and to encourage graduates going into the public sector to stay local (27 per cent). Although in a separate question the public also want – by a two to one majority – graduates to return home. In other words, the public want to have their graduate “cake and eat it”, understandably so given the skills they bring to their local community.

Interestingly, these local economic options had a higher level of support from Conservative voters (than the average), highlighting that the government’s coalition of voters have a somewhat different outlook on the economy than the Thatcherite economic worldview which dominates many centre-right think tanks in Westminster.

And the bad news

But the polling isn’t all good news for our sector. It presents significant challenges too. Over a third of people (36 per cent) have never visited their local university – rising to 41 per cent of those from C2DE social economic backgrounds. And awareness is low even for those living within very close proximity to one or more institutions – 33 per cent of city dwellers have never visited their local university.

Universities are also not the most popular local civic institutions; with local sports clubs and teams, local hospitals and local charities all scoring better (universities are ranked mid-table, so this isn’t necessarily bad, but not necessarily good either).

Our response

While much of our polling presents the sector in a positive light, I have a deep concern about the level of engagement with working class communities.

A question about whether someone has visited their local university is somewhat partial and unsatisfactory. Taken alone, it can’t tell us the level and quality of engagement the sector has with the communities it serves. But it is another data point highlighting a disconnect between universities and a key section of the population (who also happen to be the section of the electorate which gave the government a large majority two months ago). For pragmatic political reasons this is a problem we need to address, but more importantly, universities are funded by all taxpayers and should therefore be seen to have a positive impact across all parts of society.

The response to this challenge lies in some of the other questions in the poll. People across towns, cities and villages alike care most about issues such as housing, local NHS services, the high street, crime, and transport infrastructure. On first reading this might not seem particularly relevant to universities, but could higher education institutions in partnership with other key local players help to resolve some of these issues? I don’t see why not. There are a handful of universities, for example, that run local bus companies which serve the needs of residents and students. Others put in a significant resource to prevent night-life crime and anti-social behaviour; some other institutions are reimagining how learning and education may link into a new vision for the town centre. This agenda isn’t new or novel.

Nor is this just about universities opportunistically pitching themselves as a solution to the government’s levelling up agenda. The benefit is mutual. The government should be looking to draw on the expertise of local institutions, like universities, that are embedded in their communities if they are to deliver on the promises they’ve been making.

Our polling shows significant differences in the priorities of the public depending on the type of place they live in, or region they are from. While some Westminster politicians may have good intentions for towns, the polling shows that it is incredibly difficult to design national schemes or programmes to level up disparate places, because their needs and challenges are based on the context of their locality.

This calls for a partnership between the government, local business, NHS, schools, civil society, universities and colleges. It may be true that only the government has the capacity to provide the investment to make life much better in socially and economically excluded places, but it must be delivered with rather than to local communities. Therefore, the role of local institutions will be critical.

The partnership approach is supported by the public too. When we asked them to think about ways to improve their local area and provide services for their local community, 50 per cent said the government should fund these services but deliver them with organisations like universities, colleges, charities, local businesses or cultural organisations, whereas only 23 per cent think services should be funded and run by government alone.

Universities at the heart of levelling up

Universities should be central to the levelling up agenda but to be perceived as a trusted partner by government and local communities alike, universities need to be perceived as organisations which offer value to all in society, not just those who typically use them. And nor should universities just think about the areas in which they have a footprint. People in every community, in every town, are helping to fund universities after all.

There are now 59 universities which have pledged to develop a Civic University Agreement. My hope is that these will be truly co-produced with their local communities, putting real public voice – not just the most empowered or loudest voices locally – at the heart of these agreements.

4 responses to “How universities can help to level up towns

  1. Every element of what you say is true Richard. Universities should be the throbbing heart of their local communities. It only takes time, good will and academics who care to make sure that our doors are open wide enough and barriers to engagement are broken down.

  2. I am disappointed that adult and community education were not considered worthwhile in universities’ support for their communities.

  3. Gavin, my piece above focussed on the headline findings but some of the other results of the poll will please you.

    Offering night school to those who can’t study full time came pretty high up the list of options available for a question on the main responsibilities of universities to the local public, and 51% chose ‘Universities should primarily focus on educating adults of all ages’, compared to 33% who chose ‘Universities should primarily focus on education young adults, around the ages of 18 to 21’.

    Full results can be found at the bottom of our release: https://upp-foundation.org/a-tale-of-a-divided-britain/

  4. Thanx. I was thinking of non accredited and informal learning. Many universities have closed or cut their adult and community education programs over the last decade, which are thus unlikely to be well known by respondents even were they included in the survey.

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