Learning from Europe on city partnerships

Universities and cities work together to improve the local area elsewhere in Europe. Andrew Dean and Alison Ward share an initiative that helps the UK learn from this.

Andrew Dean is Head of Regional Engagement at the University of Exeter

Alison Ward is EUniverCities Network Coordinator and Administrator at the University of Exeter.

Ahead of last year’s Labour Party conference there was an expectation that Keir Starmer would signal a desire for universities to engage even further with their localities and regions.

An article by David Kernohan hinted at this and, in the same space, Jonathan Grant and Martin Szomszor have asked if the UK research system should be looking for more of a local impact.

When it comes to learning from others around place-shaping and working closely with local policymakers there is much to learn from elsewhere in Europe – where close civic links have been a feature of the education landscape for many years. The University of Exeter’s experience as a member of the self-financing EUniverCities network since around 2016 has provided an opportunity to explore diverse international approaches to civic engagement.

What’s EUniverCities?

Among the multitude of networks and alliances across Europe, the distinguishing characteristic of the EUniverCities network is that its central mission is to explore, nurture and celebrate collaboration between universities and their local government partners in all forms, and by extension to test the ways in which these tandem relationships act as a platform to engage with other local stakeholders (particularly businesses and the wider community) in order to address shared challenges. The network focuses exclusively on medium sized and smaller cities – recognising that these cities simply do not have the capacity to mirror initiatives from the likes of Manchester or Barcelona.

In 2021 the Network published a handbook containing many case studies of city-university collaboration, covering almost 10 years of activity. It’s a useful guide for establishing and maintaining productive strategic relationships between cities and their universities, drawn from the experiences of the network membership.

For Exeter, the network also provides an insight into the structural and cultural differences between UK and EU local and national institutions. In practical terms, the experiences from cities such as Ghent and Parma helped inform our own successful application to be a UNESCO City of Literature.

Some of the challenges across the very different partners are similar – we would all recognise issues around the capacity (or lack of capacity) for local government structures to engage easily with universities. In the UK, local government budgets have been cut to the bone over recent decades, meaning there’s very little room to invest in local partnership working. Such partnerships are vital to tackling so many of the deep-seated societal and economic issues where local government is often tasked with dealing with the consequences, as well as in addressing huge complex challenges such as reaching net zero.

Learning from Europe

The network highlights a need for higher education providers to cooperate where more than one university is present in a city. Ghent and Magdeburg each have two of their universities as network members alongside their respective city councils, and UMCS (as the largest university in the Polish city of Lublin) works closely with eight other local HE providers and the city administration. While examples of this type of close cooperation between local institutions certainly exist in the UK, they are less common – made more challenging by national drivers that favour competition over collaboration.

Our experiences in the network have helped shape our approach to developing city-university collaboration through a suite of new Civic University Agreements (CUAs) with Exeter, Devon and Cornwall.

There is no doubt that CUAs are a potentially useful mechanism for engagement, but just how deeply resourced these agreements will be in practice is still emerging. We’ve learned that the key to the success of these agreements must be an approach that seeks to build strong and enduring relationships over time. Unlike short term commissions or jointly delivered projects – parties must be in it for the long game, clearly focussed and with a consensus about what the key local priorities are. Agreements must be capable of weathering political and policy change, local or national – and based on respectful, equal partnerships, able to harness and direct the talents and energies of the lead actors as well the contributions of other local stakeholders.

Onwards to Ghent

Exeter currently holds the secretariat role for the EUniverCities network. This offers us a greater opportunity to help shape and steer its future, as well as playing a central part capturing and disseminating the wealth of learning generated.

Whether city-university collaboration is based on formal strategic agreements or driven through dedicated teams, there’s always an opportunity to test new and creative ways of working that expand the collective knowledge and shared experience of the network around this central topic. Our previous event was led by Magdeburg in December, on the theme of “recruiting and retaining skilled workers and the roles universities play in this” – which probably strikes a chord with every university city in the UK. In spring we will work with Ghent to deliver an event on how HE can work to support and enable Learning Cities.

One response to “Learning from Europe on city partnerships

  1. The effect of my Universities involvement with local government is to undermine democracy and enable activists to push agendas the local born population are finding increasingly unacceptable, even though they claim it’s to support democracy. A good working relationship isn’t a bad thing, but we must guard against it becoming a vehicle for those who would impose their will on others undemocratically.

Leave a Reply