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Proving commitment to a civic agenda

Universities say a lot about local activity, but are less clear about demonstrating how value it is. For Richard Brabner, there is much that could be learned from industry
This article is more than 1 year old

Richard Brabner is executive chair of the UPP Foundation

Jonathan Grant has written on Wonkhe about a gap between the rhetoric around civic activities and what universities do in practice.

He focuses his argument on whether universities – particularly those which signed up to publishing a Civic University Agreement – are accredited by the Living Wage Foundation.

No single measure can demonstrate whether a university is truly Civic or not, but it is an important challenge to the sector.

Is our approach to the civic role authentic, or is it simply a tactical response to the political agenda or even just a PR exercise?


If it’s not authentic, we face a real problem. The civic role won’t be sustained in an era of high inflation and fixed fees unless purpose is its driving force. Costs are rising and shallow political agendas have moved on. A finance director would (rightly) ask why the university is supporting this project with the local museum, or a partnership with this community group, if it is simply a nice thing to do.

Yet we know that although any movement away from the civic agenda may save a bit of short-term cash, it would be a disaster for the long-term interests of the sector and the local communities we serve. As UPP Foundation and HEPI annual public attitudes polling shows, people are much more supportive of our sector when they have engaged with universities directly.

When considering ways to be purpose-led and authentic universities should look again at the final report of the UPP Foundation’s Civic University Commission. We included four tests for a civic university – a public test, a place test, a strategic test and an impact test. All of them are equally important and link together, but the one which needs particular attention is the impact test – can a university measure the impact of its civic activity?


Many of the institutions which pledged to develop civic university Agreements have now published theses; as with any self-regulated movement there are some which are stronger than others. Individual universities are also at different stages of their civic journey, and it is right civic agreements reflect the journey they are on alongside the needs of their place.

Having said that, in general that CUAs are stronger when it comes to publishing their commitments than how they will measure success and impact. This is reasonable in the sense commitments and goals come before delivery and impact but – four years on from the commission’s final report – more work is required on showing in a balanced and accurate way, and whether a university is achieving its civic ambitions.

There are some synergies – and perhaps lessons – with the way businesses are publishing their approach to sustainability or environment, social and governance (ESG) commitments. Like with the civic agenda, businesses which are doing this tactically or in an inauthentic way to appease a particular stakeholder group, will quickly change tack when agendas blow in a different direction.

In the United States, ESG has become a political football with Republicans attempting to resist ESG investing, inevitably linking it to a “woke corporate” agenda. It will be interesting to see how this political environment changes the approach of some businesses, but thankfully in the UK there is broader political support on issues relating to ESG or sustainability.

Standards in reports

Over the last 18 months I have taken on the role of Director of ESG at UPP, alongside running the foundation. Today we are publishing our first sustainability report, which is externally accredited to be in accordance with Global Reporting Initiative Standards. GRI is the global-benchmark for sustainability reporting, and going through this process for the first time, I believe there are aspects of GRI we could adopt for the civic agenda.

Each business publishing a GRI report undertakes a materiality assessment. Essentially asking internal and external stakeholders what topics are material (important) for that particular business when it comes to the environment, social purpose and governance (not dissimilar to engagement with students, staff, external partners and the public when putting together a CUA). Businesses publish the outcomes of the assessment in their sustainability report and have to report on each topic which is deemed as material. GRI then has a standard for each material topic you report on, and as a minimum your business needs to include data on the information asked as part of the standard.

The beauty of this approach for a civic context is that it sets a standard for each organisation to report on which enables people to compare and contract what businesses are doing, while at the same time providing the flexibility to reflect on the mission and place of the organisation – critical for the civic agenda to thrive.

For example, many CUA universities commit to improving education and skills in their local community. Wouldn’t it be good to have a broad standard where data is published relating to impact which is relevant to all, with the institution building upon this standard with their own bespoke information and data on top?

Better metrics

This is a challenge the new National Civic Impact Accelerator (NCIA) is reviewing. Funded by Research England and hosted at Sheffield Hallam University, the NCIA plans to develop and publish an “intelligence hub” with metrics to track the socio-economic, institutional, political, and environmental conditions that determine what civic intervention might be needed. Developing a set of standards for civic reporting could be a role for this new organisation to coordinate with the sector.

At UPP our approach to sustainability focuses on a range of priorities such as being fully Net Zero by 2035, ensuring there is zero waste to landfill by 2030, creating £6m of social value within our corporate services, investing over £3m into the UPP Foundation and guaranteeing all of our strategic suppliers sign up to our ethical Procurement Charter. As part of our approach to GRI reporting we will be reporting on progress towards these commitments each year going forward.

There are only so many comparisons you can make between a medium sized business and a university, and we recognise this is just one step on our journey towards sustainability. But I hope in time all civic universities will commit to reporting annually on the progress they are making towards their civic commitments too.

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