It’s time to build a civic movement

Ignorance of place – and how different towns, communities and cities have experienced growth, globalisation and opportunity – has led our country to be one of the most unequal in the western world.

The is rightly framed as an issue of fairness and equity but this also negatively impacts the whole country – not just those areas “left behind”. We all face the consequences of the fragmentation of society, growing divisions and the loss of trust in our institutions.

Economically, regional inequality means a push for a large redistribution of resources from London and the south east to other parts of the country. This is right and necessary as things stand, as Professor Richard Jones in his paper on growing innovation across the whole of the UK points out, it would surely be better for all of us if underperforming parts of the UK became wealthier and more self-sufficient.

Time to tackle inequality

The good news is that there is an appetite to tackle this. Every week there seems to be a new report or piece of analysis from a think tank showing how bad regional inequality in the UK is, or how towns by the seaside or with an industrial heritage have recently struggled.

Sectors including the NHS, culture and arts, further education, civil society and grant making foundations are focussing on community and place as part of their core missions. Critically, as the recent manifestos prove, this is an issue all the major parties plan to overcome.

Cynics might conclude that this is as much a reflection of our rapidly changing electoral geography than anything else, but ultimately their motivations are secondary. What matters is that the economic and social interests of previously marginalised places are taking centre stage.

Where are universities?

Higher education is no different in growing its interest in place. As the Civic University Commission said, universities have a proud history of place-based civic engagement, but they’ve not always been as effective as they could be. A university’s civic role should be defined by the needs of its place. But the Commission rarely saw a strategic approach backed up by rigorous analysis of local needs and opportunities.

The civic role should therefore vary depending on the needs of its local area. For example, a London-based university might develop a hyper-local strategy to support disadvantaged communities in its borough. A university in the midlands might look to expand its activities to a post-industrial town in its region. Whatever the context of place, it is an agenda relevant to all institutions.

Following the conclusion of Commission our sector has embraced this critique. 56 universities have now pledged to develop and implement Civic University Agreements, which will help universities improve their civic responsibilities. They will be strategies, rooted in a robust and shared analysis of local needs and opportunities, and co-signed by local partners (such as the local authority, NHS. FE college, business, third and social sectors). The agreements will be a public declaration of a university’s civic priorities and indicate how they will be delivered in partnership with others.

Funding collaboration

One of the most pleasing outcomes following the Commission is that we have signed up universities from all four nations and all UK regions – proving that this really will have an impact on communities right across the country. And as a result of this growing movement, the UPP Foundation in collaboration with the Carnegie UK Trust is now launching a competition for a university, sector body or charity (or coalition of organisations) to host a Civic University Network – with £75,000 of seed funding to be awarded for the best proposal. The Network will incubate shared learning between participating universities as they develop and implement their CUAs.

By its very nature the civic role ought to be a collaborative exercise between universities in a locality and between universities and other partners across sectors, but at the moment there is no real avenue or hub to come up with innovative place-based ideas or share practice with others so that good ideas are scaled-up. The University of Lincoln’s brilliant report on the Permeable University echoed this sentiment when it stated: “Civic responsibilities, innovation and knowledge exchange..should be the living example of permeable connection. The problem though is that as civic practices have become less recognised by institutions and their regulatory systems a more reductive approach has prevailed.”

The Network will play an important role in overcoming this challenge. While the context will be different in each location – and each Civic University Agreement will reflect the circumstances of its place – good practice will be common amongst more than one agreement, and there is public value in this being shared across the sector.

It was also clear from a consultation we ran with CUA universities (which informed the content of a guide for developing a CUA) that there is significant interest amongst participating universities for self-evaluation and peer-review, so over time the Network will develop a benchmarking tool and peer review model, based on a similar scheme in local government. It will also provide a space to collaborate with other sectors interested in the issues of “place” and will work to champion the civic university agenda to government.

Whatever happens politically at the general election, there can be little doubt that the issues surrounding regional inequalities, underperforming core cities, ‘left behind’ coastal, rural and post-industrial towns and disadvantaged communities will be at the heart of policy-making. The Civic University Network will help the sector develop and enhance its place-based civic engagement and enable universities to plug into the policy opportunities which will flow from this agenda.

More information on the UPP/Carnegie UK Trust competition is available online.

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