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Two universities, one city: how collaboration is key to higher education’s civic mission

Two VCs, one city: UEA’s David Richardson and NUA’s John Last say collaboration is key to higher education’s civic mission.
This article is more than 5 years old

Professor John Last is the Chair of Ukadia and Vice Chancellor at Norwich University of the Arts.

David Richardson is the vice chancellor of the University of East Anglia (UEA).

The 21st Century story of town and gown is one of point and counterpoint.

Universities are independent and international in their outlook, yet deeply rooted in a place and its civic, social, economic, and cultural infrastructure.

Communities want their universities to be agents of social mobility for young people locally. Universities seek to recruit the best talent wherever it can be found, however close or far from home.

And while graduates emerge from years of study with sought-after skills and high ambition, the perennial local question – and a good one – is how many will stay and make their living here?

One town, more than one gown

However, the old idea of town and gown misses a key point about the twenty-first-century story of higher education.

There is often more than one “gown” – more than one higher education provider – in a particular town, city or area. For example, rail passengers are greeted with a sign at Cambridge Station telling them they have arrived at “the home of Anglia Ruskin University”,

Norwich has two universities with distinctive histories, characters and missions. The University of East Anglia (UEA), a comprehensive university founded in 1963, has developed an international reputation in the fields of climate change science and creative writing. Norwich University of the Arts (NUA) is a specialist creative arts institution granted university title in 2012, but with a heritage dating back to 1845 as one of the first British art schools.

So, what does the civic role of two distinct universities in one city entail?

How do the universities interact with their communities – and each other?

What expectations should residents have of their universities?   

These are among the good questions being posed about the mission of higher education by the UPP Foundation’s Civic University Commission.

More likely to visit, more likely to feel proud

The results of the commission’s YouGov survey of residents of ten English university cities paints an interesting backdrop to these questions. Norwich residents are the proudest of their local universities compared to their peers in Birmingham, Bradford, Brighton and Hove, Manchester, Newcastle upon Tyne, Nottingham, Plymouth, Wolverhampton and Sheffield.

Seventy-one per cent of respondents in Norwich said they felt proud of their universities. Only three per cent disagreed – the lowest score for the 10 cities surveyed. The average for the 10 university cities was 58 per cent and seven per cent, respectively.

Norwich also had the highest number of people who had visited their local universities within the past year (59 per cent versus an average of 37 per cent for the other university cities), and the smallest proportion never to have done so (11 per cent versus an average of 24 per cent). If universities are sometimes cast as remote, distant or “elite”, this is not the prevailing view in Norwich.

Turning community pride into higher education engagement

As vice chancellors of the city’s two universities, we see it as part of our mission to act as enablers for our community through: the advancement of knowledge; the diffusion and extension of arts, sciences and learning; and the provision of liberal, professional and technological education. Our universities don’t belong to us, we are just custodians, but to the communities they sprang from in the first place. Attempts to establish a university in Norwich came to nothing in both 1919 and 1947 and only sustained lobbying from the counties of Norfolk and Suffolk led to UEA’s establishment in 1963. NUA traces its roots back to 1845 and the founding of the Norwich School of Design by the artists and followers of the Norwich School of Painters, the only provincial British group to establish an international reputation for landscape painting.

We draw both heart and inspiration from the knowledge that most citizens of Norwich not only think our universities bring real benefits to them in the shape of research that helps solve local and global problems but also that our biggest responsibility is to help inspire children to think about their futures and stay in education. Our civic responsibility to our communities is not lost on us. After all, Norwich had the second lowest social mobility in England in the 2016 Social Mobility Index. East Anglia is often seen as a prosperous and picturesque region, but like other coastal and rural locations, it is also home to pockets of real deprivation, challenged schools, below average educational attainment, low skill/low pay jobs, and poor transport links.   

That is why Norwich‘s universities are working alongside Anglia Ruskin University, the University of Cambridge, and the University of Suffolk, and in close partnership with the region’s eight further education colleges, with a £9 million budget shared through the Network for East Anglian Collaborative Outreach (NEACO), to support and encourage school children to stay in education and improve their life skills and chances.

Universities should help people in their communities to aspire to think about their futures and to use education to help them achieve their fullest potential. We are determined to do so. Our community expects nothing less.


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