The Kerslake Collection looks forward to a refreshed civic agenda for universities

The UPP Foundation is publishing a collection of essays in memory of Civic University Commission chair and public servant Bob Kerslake. Richard Brabner and Chris Husbands reflect on Kerslake's legacy

Richard Brabner is executive chair of the UPP Foundation

Chris Husbands is director at Higher Futures and former vice chancellor of Sheffield Hallam University

In an immediate comment on the outcome of last week’s General Election, University of Birmingham University vice chancellor Adam Tickell said that the result was an opportunity for universities to be back at the centre of thinking about the UK’s economic, social and cultural future.

Fortunately, through a coincidence of timing, the UPP Foundation is publishing a collection of essays which shows exactly how that can be achieved.

The Kerslake Collection draws together 29 essays on the future of universities and their places, five years on from the highly influential UPP Foundation Civic University Commission. The collection is published in memory of Bob Kerslake who chaired the Commission. It’s a collection for university leaders, but also for civic leaders and thinkers more generally, and – of course – it’s written with a new government firmly in mind.

Bob Kerslake, who died in 2023, was one of the most distinguished public servants of his generation. He had a long and successful career in local government before becoming permanent secretary at the Department of Communities, and then a head of the Home Civil Service. He left the civil service in 2015 and became a crossbench peer in the House of Lords, assuming an extraordinary range of public service duties.

He was an almost constant fixture in the media, as an incisive and well-informed commentator on the workings of politics and government. He always spoke with conviction and authority. He cared passionately about the future of the nation and the way organisations in it worked, and he wanted them to work better, more effectively and more confidently for the public good.

Public role

The Civic University Commission was just one of these commitments, but one, like all the others, which Bob led with great enthusiasm. Bob was deeply struck by an early finding of the Commission: universities were highly regarded by those – often the most advantaged – who knew about them and engaged with them, but not so highly regarded by those who did not. He saw this as a long-term challenge for any set of institutions which depend on public support for their work.

The Civic University Commission report set out four tests for universities in their public role. There was a public test, covering participation, understanding of local needs and public pride in the institution; a place test, covering universities’ alignment with local labour markets and serving diverse local populations; a strategic test, covering universities’ analysis of local needs, links with local leadership and definition of its geographies of interest; and an impact test, covering how universities achieve impacts through relationships with other institutions, and how they measure the effects of their work.

The commission encouraged universities to co-produce Civic University Agreements with stakeholders and the public, setting out how they would meet these four tests as a way of articulating their contribution to shaping and developing their place.

Almost all universities accepted the Commission’s case for a more strategic engagement with place. More than 120 universities joined the Civic University Network, coordinated from Sheffield Hallam University. This was Bob’s influence at its best: grounded in a clear articulation of a real-world issue, thinking about the underlying drivers that might make a difference, and putting all that into practical recommendations that might shape – that phrase yet again – the public good.

A new civic agenda

Five years on, The Kerslake Collection is a tribute to Bob’s memory not by looking backward – which he would have deprecated – but by considering the next questions for the civic university agenda. The collection is diverse, and we did not want to impose consensus, but important themes emerge.

The first is about the importance of place and the relevance of the Civic University Commission, including the way Bob drew on his impact in the city of Sheffield.

The second theme is about local economies and politics, exploring how universities can help to stimulate local growth, in partnership with business, local authorities and others.

The third theme is about education, broadly understood, including universities’ civic role in supporting opportunities for local people, the possibilities of tertiary systems, and how universities can better enhance skills.

The final theme is about universities’ social purpose, including health, arts and culture, the environment, and the challenges of “studentification.”

When we set out to edit this collection we did not appreciate just how enthusiastically our contributors would respond with such stimulating contributions and, of course, we had no idea that the collection would be published in the first week of a new government, committed to a decade of national renewal.

We hope that it will find readers in the Departments for Education, and of Science, Innovation and Technology, but we also hope that it will find enthusiasm across the sector. Bob knew that the critical ingredient in successful change was committed local leadership underpinned by moral purpose – if this collection helps to achieve that, it will be a fitting memorial.

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