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The civic university is alive, but is it well?

Richard Brabner of UPP Foundation introduces the Civic University Commission progress report, which focuses on the decline in adult education.
This article is more than 5 years old

Richard Brabner is executive chair of the UPP Foundation

The UPP Foundation Civic University Commission’s progress report has developed some key themes as part of its evidence-gathering process.

The hearings we’ve held have already sparked new initiatives and ideas, as well as strengthened relationships between universities and their civic partners.

The commission has really captured the imagination of many in the sector. We have been inundated with evidence, offers to host events and to attend meetings. It’s a demonstration of the real passion for the role universities play in their towns, cities and regions.

As we launch our progress report today, the first thing to say is that the civic role – for all the pressures the sector faces – is still very much alive.

The progress report is deliberately partial. It offers an update on what the commission has found so far, but delves into one issue in depth – the shocking decline in adult education – and poses some further reflection and questions before our final report is published in the early new year.

Definition of a civic university

First, we think a public-centred view is the best way to think about a civic university. Can people talk about their university with pride and awareness? If so, it is almost certainly civic.

At the start of each evidence session, Bob Kerslake, chair of the commission, asked witnesses how they would describe a civic university to someone travelling on the bus. Every single response mentioned the local – the impact the university has on its specific place. Therefore, the second element of this working definition is that a civic university must be truly local. It must be willing to accept that there are some people it prioritises – namely those who grow up, live, and work in the area.

The third point is about strategy. Every university can list a menu of civic activity they conduct in their community, but to be truly civic there must be a clear strategy that is informed by close partner engagement and an objective analysis of local needs. This is one area where the Commission feels there is room for improvement. We have seen very few examples of an explicit strategy on civic engagement based on an analysis of a local community’s needs.

Disappearance adult education

While the civic role is alive, the case of adult education shows that not every aspect of the civic role is well.

Flexible education – typically attractive to adults – was one of the founding principles of many of our civic universities. At (what is now) the University of Manchester for example, by 1880, there were 392 day students and 855 who attended in the evening.

Yet as readers of Wonkhe will be aware, adult education has faced a devastating decline in recent years. Across all courses, there are over 110,000 fewer students aged 25 and older in HE today than there were in 2012.

This decline in adult student numbers represents a material threat to the UK economy – at a time when many workers are facing the loss of jobs through increased automation and the adoption of new technologies. Such massive disruption will require people to retrain to remain part of the fast-evolving labour market.

The problem is a uniquely UK phenomenon. The proportion of over 25s enrolled in tertiary education in the UK is one of the lowest in the OECD at 1.8%. Twelve OECD countries had more than 3% of their population enrolled in tertiary education in 2015. Other Western governments are investing in adult education and increasing numbers as their nations prepare for the fourth industrial revolution.

Given the evidence the commission has heard, a transformation of adult education in universities must be part of the post-18 review and future government policy. The commission is recommending a series of changes to the way part-time and returning students can access funding, it is arguing for a hypothecation of the apprenticeship levy to support this activity, as well as changes to institutional incentives, so universities and staff are rewarded for prioritising adult education.

The commission believes there is merit in piloting these changes in different parts of the country with joint bids between universities, FE and local government a requirement.

However, the decline of adult education is not just because of the failure of policy from successive governments. Too often, universities which proudly extol their autonomy, simply follow national policy incentives. Civic universities need to have their area’s needs at the heart of their strategy. Regardless of what any particular government decides to do, universities, as part of their charitable mission and autonomy, have the power to create flexible and attractive routes into HE for adults. What Coventry University is attempting in Scarborough and Dagenham is testament to what is possible, even when the national incentives are pointing in the opposite direction.

The funding paradox

The final observation I will make from the commission’s report is that tuition fees are providing the resources to carry out civic activities but that this system is putting pressure on sustainability.

People in our focus groups ahead of launching the commission were very aware of changes to fees and this has impacted how they think of universities and what they ought to be spending money on. For example, one respondent said: “If I was paying out all that money I’d want it spent on me, not other people [the city]”

What emerges from the ONS’s review may, of course, alter this picture. But the pressure is heading in one direction – the student as a consumer – and in that environment universities may find it harder to justify behaving in a typically civic fashion.

On the other hand, tuition fees have protected universities from the reductions in funding much of the public sector has experienced. Without that the ability to play a meaningful civic role – be it supporting the local museum, working with the local sixth form college to improve attainment, or providing training to people from the poorest ward to help them enter the workforce – would be greatly diminished.

The commission will be exploring this paradox in its final report.

What’s next?

The final chapter of the progress report looks at some of the other themes of the commission and the issues we are exploring within these themes that will make up much of the final report. We are posing a series of questions, so we’d like to hear from universities, the private and public sectors and civil society on any further reflections you have.

The final report is due to be published in early 2019.

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