Universities are not “civic washing” – but we do need to keep up the momentum

Responding to the charge that some universities are not living up to their civic promise, Richard Calvert argues there is more than one way to be civic

Richard Calvert is Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Strategy and Operations) at Sheffield Hallam University and Civic University Network strategic lead

Jonathan Grant’s recent article on civic engagement questions whether universities are living up to the commitments which many of us made in response to the UPP Foundation Truly Civic report back in 2019.

Jonathan calls out in particular the number of Civic University Agreements currently in place, as well as our performance in committing to the Living Wage. It’s a fair challenge, and as with many big commitments – not just in the university sector – it’s always good to test rhetoric against reality of practice. In leading the Civic University Network, we at Sheffield Hallam would be the first to recognise that there’s much still to do.

But I do think the picture over the last two years, since we established the Civic University Network, is a more positive one than Jonathan paints.

Over 115 universities are now partners within the Civic University Network, sharing best practice and engaging in discussions around activity. Some have launched their own Civic University Agreement, or are actively considering how to refine their strategic approach to best fit their own region. Some have done so jointly with other institutions. You only have to look at the examples of civic activity on the network’s website to get a sense of the breadth of support for the agenda.

The pandemic has also thrown the impact of universities into sharp focus. Across the board, universities have made an overwhelmingly positive contribution to their local community in the last two years. From running vaccination centres, supporting business, and increasing testing capacity, to fast-tracking healthcare students for the NHS frontline, it’s a long and impressive list.

That’s not to duck Jonathan’s challenge. The pandemic has undoubtedly slowed down work in many institutions on developing and finalising Civic University Agreements, and while there’s a growing list of these in place and those in preparation, it will be important to keep up momentum.

Baskets of measures

The UPP Commission challenged universities to demonstrate a genuinely strategic approach to their civic role, and one which reflects and responds to local needs. A Civic University Agreement is not the only way to do that, but for many universities with real civic ambitions, it will be the key statement of intent, and also a route to building or tightening the partnerships which will underpin delivery.

It’s also right to look at how we measure our performance locally. Paying the Living Wage isn’t a bad indicator for many of us of whether we’re acting as responsible local employers. And I’d rightly expect to be called out locally if we were not doing so – accredited or otherwise.

But we also need a broader framework for measuring progress. The breadth of the sector, and even more importantly the breadth of local contexts in which we operate, mean that there will be no single model or blueprint of “civicness”.

When we established the Civic University Network, we tested but steered away from a simple league table of measuring progress. That can’t however be an excuse for not taking impact measures seriously. What we have developed, through the Civic Impact Framework, is a range of metrics and evidence to build a broad picture – helping universities to assess their civic role in ways that reflect local context, and providing a tool to drive greater impact.

The civic agenda continues to grow and influence the sector, as more universities explore and consider how they can shape their contribution. This is important. As Matthew Guest notes when assessing HE implications for the forthcoming levelling up white paper, there is a unique chance to demonstrate our value and define what levelling up means for our community.

And while there is still a long way to go in responding to the Truly Civic challenge, the engagement with and support for the Civic University Network we have experienced has been encouraging. Let’s recognise the progress made, but let’s also keep testing and challenging. This agenda, and the role of universities as key civic actors, isn’t going away.

2 responses to “Universities are not “civic washing” – but we do need to keep up the momentum

  1. There is nothing here that I disagree with.

    My challenge is that universities have to walk the talk on ‘civicness’ and that the living wage is a good *indicator* of that. The fact is that there are a small number of institutions claim to be civic but dont pay a living wage and that I personally find unacceptable.

    But I agree much has been done and that should be recognised (indeed I have a book coming out that celebrates the university’s response to COVID with a major theme being that local civic impact). I also agree that we need to develop better was of assessing local impact that captures the educational, research and civic missions of universities including how they operate. If my article manages to energise some of those discussions then I am delighted!

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