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Local communities want universities to help save left behind towns

In time, the health crisis will become an economic crisis. Richard Brabner explains the recommendations from a new UPP Foundation report on levelling up.
This article is more than 3 years old

Richard Brabner is executive chair of the UPP Foundation

Over the course of the last few years there has been a tendency – particularly among post-liberals and traditionalists of left and right – to blame universities for the plight of deindustrialised towns.

They are criticised for the internal migration of skills, for having little to offer people who are anchored to where they’ve always lived, and for being at odds – culturally – with lower middle class and working-class residents.

The reality – as Wonkhe’s readership will appreciate – is much more nuanced. But the narrative – that universities not only have little to offer left behind towns but actively harm them – is dangerous because it intersects with our changing political geography. What the people of Dudley, Oldham and Darlington care about will inform policymaking for the foreseeable future.

As Ed Dorrell wrote on Wonkhe a few weeks ago, a pragmatic response is for universities to put themselves at the centre of the conversation about the levelling up agenda. And for those readers who are uninspired by pragmatic political reasons for action, the good news is it is the right thing to do, too.

There are numerous reports which show the contribution universities make to their local communities. Their economic, social and cultural impact is not in doubt.

An important question remains, however: to what extent does this benefit spill out more widely into areas, like post-industrial towns, where a university is not present?

Recent analysis has shown that growth and productivity has not flown from cities to satellite towns. In other words, university activity in a city or large town may not naturally spread to other towns – and may actually make the gap between the two even larger.

There is also very little engagement between universities and the people living in non-university towns. Polling shows that most of the public have not set foot in a university, and there is little knowledge of what universities do in their local communities. They essentially think of universities as big schools.

So, what can we do about it?

Towards the end of last year, the UPP Foundation embarked on a project, supported by Public First, to look at how universities could extend their civic role to post-industrial towns.

We analysed the factors which are needed to regenerate areas, we looked at the local challenges where universities have a role to play, and we investigated the issues that the public wants to see action on.

From this, we identified a cluster of issues which universities – in partnership with other civic actors – have the potential to address:

  • Town centre regeneration
  • Jobs and economic localism
  • Boosting educational attainment in schools and for adults
  • Research and development of the local area
  • Supporting the NHS

Some of these issues – such as educational attainment and local R&D impact – are natural terrain for our sector, and the recommendations seek to move these agendas forward. Other issues – town centre regeneration and economic localism, for example – are not natural priorities for universities.

High street regeneration

We are all familiar with the story of the decline of the high street. Technological change, leading to behavioural change, has resulted in us shopping online instead of in person. Combined with business rates, rental increases and out of town shopping centres, the high street has faced a tough environment for years.

As our polling and focus groups tell us, people are proud of their towns. Yet the state of the high street is a constant reminder of their town’s decline.

The public wants vibrant high streets where the community convenes and meets, where services are provided, some shopping can be done, and where they can be entertained.

We believe government, universities and civic institutions working in harmony can kick start the renewal of town centres and revitalise communities. By partnering with the NHS, cultural organisations, FE colleges, school trust, local businesses and led by local government, universities could be at the heart of regional consortiums reimagining high streets for the twenty-first century

We’re recommending the government earmarks funding for turning parts of town centres into community zones, where anchor institutions deliver services, programmes and activity making a vibrant and viable place for the public to convene. For universities this might be delivering enterprise support, volunteering programmes, adult education classes, or citizens’ advice, while other civic partners deliver activity that is relevant to them.

Clearly much of this would need capital funding to get it off the ground. Universities would be able to bid in partnership with local government and other civic players as part of local consortiums, on the condition that they situate some of their teaching, research and community activity in these community zones as an anchor tenant.

Economic localism

Convening the Civic University Commission we saw a small number of excellent examples of universities using their economic power to proactively support their local economies. We believe that a strategic approach to localism can be made a bigger priority in expanding and implementing civic engagement within economically deprived towns.

Most importantly of all, in staff recruitment. Universities are often one of the bigger employers in their regions. We argue that all non-academic, professional services jobs should be advertised as widely as possible with a specific focus on nearby towns, as well as being underpinned by outreach activity to enhance public awareness of universities’ status as employers.

This would be one of the best ways to engage with the public who rarely interact with universities and would be hugely popular with the public in satellite towns, according to the results of our public opinion work.

Beyond recruitment, we believe universities should ensure that their own procurement frameworks are flexible and designed to develop the local workforce and prioritise companies which give something back to society, while maintaining value for money.

Covid and cash

Right now, our sector is focused on managing institutions through Covid and the second wave. And the current national lockdown makes it more difficult to focus anywhere but there here and now. But in time, the health emergency is going to morph into an employment crisis.

Alongside our levelling up report we have published analysis which suggests that up to five million jobs are at risk in towns and cities across the UK. Three million of these are non-graduate jobs, of which 2.4-2.5 million are not covered by the government’s new lifetime skills guarantee.

We also show that many non-graduates want higher level training, rather than just a new level three qualification, are not motivated to retrain in areas of shortage skill in the economy, and have the ambition to go university.

We argue for a better balance between labour market need and student demand with the creation of a lifetime loan account and the flexibility for even more learners to be able to access education through local universities and colleges, including for shorter and more technical courses.

In its current guise, the government’s lifetime loan guarantee, as welcome as it is, presents a missed opportunity for enhancing the role universities play locally to support the lives of people impacted by the crisis.

It’s a reminder of the finding from the Civic University Commission that universities have developed their civic role despite the incentives in the system.

Though there continues to be external and commercial funding opportunities to support this agenda, the civic role has largely been paid for by tuition fees.

In recent months it has been said that universities are key to supporting their communities overcome the crisis, and that their civic role has grown in importance. But as Nick Hillman wrote for HEPI on The Future of Higher Education after Covid, there’s likely to be less money for teaching each student in future. Something has to give.

The government was clear in its manifesto that universities’ civic role is a priority. If they want universities to deliver on levelling up during a time of financial uncertainty and declining resources – to provide evening classes for adults, revitalise deprived towns, support NHS capacity, improve educational attainment, increase the local impact of R&D – there needs to be support.

Depending on the level of ambition, that doesn’t necessarily mean more money for universities – but it does mean directing more of England’s tertiary resources towards this agenda.

For understandable and obvious reasons universities have historically focused much of their civic activity in the towns and cities in which they have physical presence. It is time to extend the civic orbit. Working with government and local partners, our sector can play a key role in helping to overcome the economic and social challenges faced by those living in our post-industrial communities.

Download the UPP Foundation reports in full here.

At midday on Monday 2 November the UPP Foundation and Civic University Network will host an event: Universities’ role in levelling up and building back better. Find out more and register to attend here

2 responses to “Local communities want universities to help save left behind towns

  1. This is an important and timely report out today, Richard. It’s full of implications for how universities lead in partnership, and the new set of capabilities this calls for.

  2. I’m uncertain why you write “If they want universities to deliver on levelling up during a time of financial uncertainty and declining resources … ” I would challenge the assumption of declining resources. There has been a bonanza of resources for private companies failing to deliver test and trace or PPE. We have to demand those resources be spent on our towns and communities via local authorities, the NHS, schools and universities and local enterprises. If we accept the mantra of declining resources we are complicit in the austerity agenda.

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