Back in 2016, the Welsh government’s education minister Kirsty Williams challenged universities in Wales to “re-capture and re-invent civic mission so that it is realised and relevant for our contemporary challenges.”
Her speech reflected on the distance between campus and community exposed by the referendum that ultimately led to Brexit. With her challenge accepted, Welsh universities re-grouped and, along with investment for civic mission activities from Welsh government, Universities Wales established a network to share best practice and to consider a more joined up approach. The Civic Mission Network developed a Civic Mission Framework to help universities to work with people, schools and communities. The framework enables universities to share best practice in developing and delivering civic mission projects and supports the sector in demonstrating the positive impact of its civic mission work.
The Civic Mission Framework relates to Wales’ Wellbeing of Future Generations Act 2015 and is set around five key areas of action:
- Leading place – engaging with other key civic leaders at a national and community level
- Contributing to raising educational standards by developing links with schools, colleges and other learning environments
- Developing active citizenship
- Acting as the engine of social enterprise, business skills and employability
- Responding to global issues
The South Wales Civic Engagement Partnership
While a Wales-wide network is helpful in sharing best practice and challenges, our framework emphasises the need to work in place, so in the South Wales region we’ve come together to form the South Wales Civic Engagement Partnership (SWCEP). This is a newly-formed partnership between the five universities and five colleges operating within Cardiff Capital Region – the first agreement in the UK that involves both higher and further education institutions.
With the common goal of a shared civic mission agenda, the strategic partnership will enhance links between the higher education and further education sectors, while delivering a more collaborative approach to civic engagement in the region – an approach that will respond to identified local and regional needs. Its strategic board includes, in addition to the leads from the university and FE partners, representatives from Cardiff Capital Region (which covers the 10 local authority areas), the Office of the Future Generations Commissioner for Wales, and Public Health Wales. The strategic board provides direction to an operational group which is made up of civic mission champions from each university and FE institution. These roles are part funded so they can focus on developing civic mission at their home institutions while collaborating across the partnership.
Although the SWCEP is in its infancy, we are already sharing ideas that we intend to roll out across our partner institutions. One such initiative is proactively matching students with opportunities to volunteer with community organisations. This scheme has worked well at the University of South Wales where more than 120 students volunteered at community organisations in the scheme’s first year.
We are also learning from the Business in the Community place-based programme in Newport, where the University of South Wales is a founding member. By bringing together the local authority, businesses, community organisations, and the university and FE college in the region, we are already making an impact. A year on, and the “seeing is believing” sessions where business leaders visit community groups to see first-hand their work and their challenges, are already yielding positive partnerships with a range of outcomes emerging, including work experience for young people, regular meals for guests at a community centre, refurbishment of an IT suite at a community centre, and skills development for women and minority ethnic groups in the community. This work is happening while the project tackles longer term goals that will have a sustained impact on the Newport region.
Listening and convening
At its core, the collaboration will focus on listening to community groups who are deeply embedded in helping people in the region. By hearing what the community organisations have to say, the colleges and universities in the Cardiff Capital Region can work with them to help address inequalities in the area. A series of community conversations has already started, focusing on health and wellbeing; Wales’ green recovery & sustainability; education; employment, business and entrepreneurship; and creative arts.
The SWCEP is building on solid foundations. Each institution already has a deep commitment to civic mission work and, through a detailed audit, we have a good understanding of the depth and breadth of work already undertaken. The community conversations will give us a more nuanced understanding of how we can work together for the good of our communities. We have pledged to utilise our power as conveners of people and organisations in our region to improve the economic, social, environmental, and cultural wellbeing of the country.
The SWCEP is looking beyond Wales and leaning into support from the new National Civic Impact Accelerator (NCIA) which is funded by Research England. The NCIA’s vision is to increase the connectivity, momentum, and effectiveness of the HE sector’s civic activities for local societal, economic, and environmental benefit and maximise the contribution universities can make in addressing societal challenges and responding to policy priorities. We welcome working with the NCIA to create social change in our region.
The institutions of the partnership include the University of South Wales (USW), Cardiff University, Cardiff Metropolitan University, the Royal Welsh College of Music & Drama, the Open University, Cardiff & Vale College, The College Merthyr Tydfil, Bridgend College, Coleg Gwent, and Coleg y Cymoedd.