In the press, in Whitehall and – critically – amongst the public, scepticism of universities is high. Fundamental questions are being asked about their purpose, whether they provide value for money, and whether they serve students and taxpayers. It is connected to the debate about student fees. But it is also a result of the sector failing to demonstrate its wider public value.
It’s easy to say that there must change. But what, as a sector, are we going to do about it and what will change look like?
Our part of that answer is clear – over the next nine months, the UPP Foundation is running a commission on the “civic university” and what that means in the 21st century. When we think of the civic university, we often think local pride and how the red brick universities born around the turn of the last century (and the institutions that followed later on) were built on twin ambitions of aiding local industry as well as giving intellectual life to their host cities and regions.
We want to capture that spirit – the spirit of what it means to be civic and serve your community today.
We know that many in the sector share our belief that universities need a local focus alongside a global one. And superb work is already being done throughout England. We want to hear about the best practice already in place, as well as ideas that might apply in coming decades.
How can universities get involved?
The commission is an attempt to shift the debate about higher education, but it has a more fundamental and practical purpose. Universities will exist for centuries (indeed many already have) – far beyond any piece of government legislation or headline in the papers. The commission will help them to understand what it is to be a civic university in the 21st century and to sustainably maintain an international focus – both on students and research – while serving those close to home.
Our Commission will run very much like a select committee enquiry. It is launching on 20 March, and we will be holding oral evidence sessions in June before a report launch in the Autumn. For reasons of practicality, the three evidence-sessions will take place in Manchester, Nottingham, and Sheffield – and will be delivered in conjunction with university partners in those cities.
But we want as many universities, businesses, representative bodies and civic organisations across England to get involved with the work of the commission (we also very much welcome evidence from organisations and universities in other parts of the UK to share best practice). Here are a few ways in which your organisation might want to engage.
The commission will be issuing a call for written evidence, with questions themed around the different dimensions of what the civic role of universities might entail. This call will be open to all organisations, and we are particularly keen to get the views of universities, students’ unions and individual researchers with expertise in the relevant fields.
In addition, the commission’s website will host and promote a compelling bank of case-studies about how universities across the UK are putting their articulation of civic responsibility into practice.
Also in the manner of parliamentary committees, we will be inviting a limited number of individuals to give oral evidence. Organisations are encouraged to proactively suggest individuals for the consideration of the commission.
We recognise that in many ways the diversity of how different universities define their civic role is a significant strength of the UK higher education sector. We also want to hear from non-HE organisations on what they want from their local universities.
But despite the topicality of the issue, there is currently no report, forum or bank of evidence that brings together best-practice and clear, targeted policy recommendations aimed at the university sector, local and regional policymakers and civic partners, or national government.
The commission will seek to develop these recommendations but use the act of evidence-gathering, engagement and debate as a mechanism to raise the profile of the issue amongst national and civic stakeholders from policy, industry, the media and the HE sector. I hope you’ll join us in this mission.