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Think civic! Five ideas for universities

Alex Miles of the University of Nottingham has five ideas for civic-minded universities.
This article is more than 6 years old

Alex Favier is Director of Global Reputation and Relations at the University of Nottingham.

The public value and civic role of universities have, over the last 18 months, become a major topic of debate.

This national conversation has emerged in response to pressure from three sources. The first is societal pressure on the purpose and utility of universities. The second is internal pressure – illustrated by pay and pension disputes – but underpinned by longer-term unease about marketisation and reforms of higher education. The third pressure, exerted by politicians and regulators who detect that universities are losing the consent of the public to continue to operate – with independence – in the manner we have been.

Introducing the “Civic Excellence Framework (CEF)”

So, imagine that tonight at the UPP Foundation/Wonkhe policy forum on the civic role of universities (#CivicHE on Twitter for those who can’t make it), Sam Gyimah MP takes a break from battling on behalf of those that have almost (but not quite) being censored on campus, to turn up and announce a new government consultation on the creation of the “Civic Excellence Framework (CEF)”.

CEF will not only increase the number of three letter acronyms (TLAs) enjoyed by the sector but will also expand on the government’s 2016 proposals to make all universities sponsor academy free schools, irrespective of universities’ desire to do so … or indeed, any substantial evidence that this delivers improved outcomes for any of those involved.

Assuming he is allowed in (the policy forum is meant to be a safe space for HE wonks after all), the minister will introduce a series of measures that will link tuition fee levels, research funding, and VC salaries for all institutions to a CEF ranking. Metrics would include staff days dedicated to providing expertise to civic authorities; the quality and impact of cultural events (assessed by the number of attendees); and a requirement to employ at least one YouTube superstar scientist with over 150m views (preferably with distinctive hair).

Does this sound far-fetched? Most of the above is already recorded by the Higher Education Business and Community Interaction Survey (HE-BCIS). In the current climate, where the purpose and practice of universities is being challenged in an increasingly acerbic manner, why wouldn’t a CEF be introduced as the stick to accompany the industrial strategy funding carrot?

Unless universities define what it means to be “civic”, in a manner that articulates the enormous diversity of activity, geographical nuance, and historical context that this simple term denotes; then we risk a regulator taking a one-size-fits-all approach.

It’s quite timely, therefore, that the UPP Foundation’s Civic University Commission has just been launched. Bob Kerslake, former Head of the UK Civil Service and Chief Executive of Sheffield City Council is at its helm. So, in line with the commission’s stated ambition to prompt debate on this topic, here are five ideas that might help universities define the future of their civic role…  

1) Do it with meaning. Pursue an intentional civic strategy … not an incidental one

One of the things that, quite rightly, annoys many post-92 university leaders is when occasionally those of us in the Russell Group suddenly lay claim to being the most civic of all universities. This can lead some in government and the media to underestimate or ignore the fact that many younger universities are far more advanced in the civic agenda than we are.

But the days of articulating your civic and regional contribution through a glossy brochure outlining your massive economic impact (guilty, twice) are probably over – even those targeted at a local rather than national audience.  

These reports generally relied on post hoc articulation of a predominantly incidental impact. But, instead, our claims to be civic should be backed up by institutional intention. This might include having a clear and long-term civic strategy, accompanying internal governance arrangements to support prioritisation and decision-making, and of course investment in the resources required to deliver on this intent over time. Finally, if you have all of these things, then consider how visible they are to your internal and external stakeholders.

Good examples of such civic strategic frameworks include work by Ulster, Warwick, Dublin City University, Edinburgh, Cardiff and King’s College London.

2) Check your size

UK universities must be more aware of the negative impacts of their enormous growth over the last 20 years on the communities and cities in which they are based. Yes, the economic benefit of students is significant – but as Warren Buffet almost said: “It takes 20 years to build a reputation and five minutes of one of your students having 5am wheelie bin jousting competitions to ruin it.” However, without wanting to scaremonger, some of the language and accusations made about “students” (particularly with regards to housing issues) during the focus groups undertaken by the Civic University Commission in two large UK cities sounded eerily in line with the post-Brexit narrative of university “anywheres” –  in direct conflict with local “somewheres”. Universities are now too big to not take this issue seriously.

3) Structure your engagement

Another symptom of the growth of universities is that finding the right person to talk to or knowing what’s going on is hard enough for those that work there, let alone for civic partners. A way round this to is devote some concentrated time to structuring your engagement such partners – at Nottingham we have used a fairly straightforward “responsible, accountable, consulted and informed” (or RACI) model to organise this. However, universities must recognise that, as Julia Hobsbawm has said: maintaining your networks takes effort, a bit like going to the gym. Universities tend to have flatter structures than businesses or local government, so always beware what we called in my last job “the vice chancellor’s office black hole”, which absorbed information and intelligence like a dying star. Good examples of initiatives to support more effective civic navigation of universities include Plymouth’s One-Stop Ideas Shop, Lincoln’s joint appointment of a Director of Policy with its local LEP, and the Research Gateways at Sheffield.  

4) Beyond Brexit – becoming a “civically-global university”

Are you a local authority or local enterprise partnership (LEP) based in an area outside London or Scotland without a devolution deal? Worried about the changes to local government funding moving almost entirely to business rate retention? Concerned where these businesses are going to be coming from when Brexit-induced-uncertainty is now a chronic economic condition?  

Well, it turns out that universities are actually pretty good at this whole international relationship building thing, and as we have done with our “Trade and Invest in Nottingham” office in Ningbo, China, they might be able to help you out. In return, you can work with them to ensure that your city is welcoming and opening to international students and staff, through Brexit and beyond. Universities are increasingly working with local areas to support place-making and tourism e.g. see Lancaster University’s Morecambe Eden Project. Being a civically-global university has enormous potential for UK institutions, not least because it represents a re-articulation of one of the key attack lines used against us.

5) Harness the innate civic power of the REF and the KEF

As someone who was working in a knowledge exchange function when the impact agenda was just a twinkle in David Sweeney’s (and RAND Europe’s) eye, the transformation wrought by this aspect of the REF (Research Excellence Framework) on the willingness of researchers to engage outwards through their work has been both extraordinary and heartening. It also demonstrates that one of the most effective ways to affect sector-wide cultural change is to dangle a big quality-related (QR) research funding carrot in front of academics and department heads. The civic potential of your research community is enormous – and it’s probably happening far more than you know about.

With this in mind, both the REF and the Knowledge Exchange Framework (KEF) offer massive opportunities for universities to try and understand more about what their researchers are doing in the civic arena – and then promote, support, and augment these efforts as part of a wider civic strategy.

And for those of us aiming to influence national policy, why not push those developing the REF Impact or KEF criteria to more explicitly reward localised activity?

Some final thoughts

There are so many other things that I could have included in this piece. I hope that the commission and other contributors will consider and write about these over the coming months.

However, I would like to end with a couple of pieces of advice to universities seeking to shape their civic destiny. The first is that “civic” doesn’t have to mean the city – you can define your own geographies.

The second is that you don’t have to do this alone. For example, the University of Nottingham and Nottingham Trent University are about to begin to a joint project looking at the complementarity of our civic contribution. As regional collaborations such as Midlands Innovation have shown, universities are inherently collaborative, and this approach can yield significant civic dividends by supporting economic growth, jobs, and culture.

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