Today sees the launch of the final report from the UPP Foundation’s Civic University Commission marking the end of nearly a year’s worth of evidence gathering, consultation and serious thought. Chaired by Lord (Bob) Kerslake, former head of the civil service and before that, chief executive of Sheffield City Council.

He’s been ably assisted by a who’s who of higher education experts and by Public First, a consultancy led by Rachel Wolf, formerly an education adviser to David Cameron and Theresa May at No 10. A pretty decent bunch in all – in equal parts illustrious, informed and influential.

But as they and we all know, this is a tricky time to publish such a major piece of work. When Brexit dominates the media and constrains the attention and capacity of politicians and policymakers alike. A situation likely to continue long beyond our planned exit date of 29 March. We know that even the Augar Review – though more or less finished – is also finding it hard to agree when to publish for some of the same reasons.

The combination of Brexit and Augar is making if difficult for many in higher education to see much beyond either.

Beyond Brexit

So why then does the thinking of the Civic Commission matter? Especially when these bigger issues are swirling around us? Why also when the media seems intent on giving universities a daily kicking on such a wide range of topics, should we offer them another issue? And why should it matter when government – or at least HE policy – seems to care so little about “place?”

The Civic Commission’s final report matters – simply – because of all of these things. It attempts to join all of these issues together and to explain not just how we got into this mess but also by offering practical suggestions about how we might get out. Or as Bob Kerslake suggests in his foreword, “while universities are vital to their places, they also need the active support of their communities in these turbulent and challenging times. Put simply, they need all the friends that they can get.”

With its impressive sweep of history, international experience and extensive institutional knowledge the report considers why a civic focus might just help to rebuild trust in universities as well as restoring local growth and tackling deep regional inequality. Working like a parliamentary select committee, the commission conducted eight formal evidence sessions, many more events and meetings and took written submissions from institutions including universities, government and various sector and other bodies. It produced an interim report focusing on part-time and adult education and throughout it asked questions that might have seemed obvious but that aren’t asked enough or at all. Not by government, not by funding or regulatory bodies and perhaps not sufficiently by universities themselves.

Claiming the territory

English policy has been relatively territorially agnostic for many years. The dislocation of place or the relegation of civic interests when, in the words of the Commission, “university policy remains almost wholly national”, feels precisely the wrong approach in today’s politics. It downplays institutional history and purpose but worse it betrays a lack of interest in what happens to people and places. At this moment in time, that feels like a huge risk.

The less universities feel connected to places, the less places will feel connected to them. Why then might these same people and places care about the funding for teaching and learning or for science and research?

Why indeed?

First, the Commission proposes “civic agreements” – where universities commit to working closely with their local authorities and stakeholders. Thirty universities are already signed up – committing to working with local partners to fully understand and to maximise their civic roles. A real variety of institutions and places are included. Big cities like Birmingham, Liverpool, Nottingham, Glasgow, Sheffield, Cardiff and London. But also smaller towns and cities doing less well economically: Sunderland, Stoke, Worcester, Hull, Lincoln and Wolverhampton.

The second big theme is around policy frameworks, measurement and evaluation. Universities are encouraged to research their local places, labour markets and communities as a basis for these new agreements. To build understanding as well as the resources for doing so over the long term. But the most powerful aspect of this recommendation really comes for government with a strong call to remove perverse and counterproductive measures.

It is clear that some of the current measures of teaching and research – which are often designed by government, rather than universities – mitigate against civic activity. Removing those is vital and in particular: reducing the reliance of measures such as LEO in high stakes metrics such as TEF, that penalises universities for releasing graduates into regional labour markets with lower employment outcomes.

It continues with a pot shot at research funding and “any suggestion – linguistic or otherwise – in things like the REF that ‘local research’ is by definition inferior to international research.”

These messages may already be getting through to new universities and science minister Chris Skidmore. In his recent THE interview he acknowledged the key influence of regional economies on earnings, noting that “if you are a student, say, who studied at the University of Leeds and decided to stay in Leeds or maybe moved to Sheffield, your results are going to be very different than if you moved down to London.” Some of these same issues are also reported to be running through the KEF and an overarching data advisory group already set up by the new minister.

The third area, perhaps inevitably, is a call for funding. But here the Civic Commission doesn’t really ask for very much. A new Civic University Fund enabling universities to bid for resources to implement civic, place-based strategies worth some £500m over five years. The report asks for it to be administered jointly by DfE and BEIS recognising both industrial strategy and teaching and learning, but with a primary focus on ‘economically and socially vulnerable places. Pragmatically this puts the ask firmly in the realms of proposed Shared Prosperity funding and beyond existing resources.

To complement this, the Commission calls for doubling the Strength in Places fund – already part of the industrial strategy and run by UKRI. The fund currently offers £10m-£50m for a small number of innovative projects building on existing research and innovation capabilities and tackling regional disparities by improving the local economy. The Autumn 2018 Budget already announced £120m for a second round of SIPF and it is this figure that they call to be doubled. So again quite small in the context of some £7bn already committed for R&D spending in the industrial strategy.

Questions bigger than cash

Can government think just a little bit more about “place”…? Why is policy putting so little value on the rich local and institutional histories that have shaped higher education in the UK? Why now when policy agendas are being increasingly driven by the politics of left behind communities?

If Augar – and any further reforms to OFS, TEF etc – is providing the detailed technical recommendations, then it is Kerslake that is testing higher education against the turbulent mood of our politics.

The Commission asks why universities have taken a beating in the politics of the referendum and concludes that the gap between ordinary people and places and their nearby universities is far too wide, too abstract, too problematic. In time then, Kerslake’s report might be seen as an important companion piece to the Augar Review.

Speaking to our wider politics in a way that Augar cannot, directly addressing the turbulent context in which new higher education policies will be made. The Civic University Commission has shown that it understands the mood of the moment.

Now it is for others – in government as well as in universities – to show that they do too.

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