Now is the time for universities to take an active lead on post-Covid-19 recovery, not just sit back and analyse the problems or procrastinate. The coming years also won’t just be about recovery but taking the opportunity to re-shape the UK: making it more equal, more sustainable, and healthier.
It’s easy enough to spell out how universities ought to be natural partners for change. But how is it to happen in practice, when universities continue to be seen as operating in a separate sphere to local communities?
In August last year, the period between lockdowns, I was approached by Bradford City Council to chair the city’s Economic Recovery Board. This meant rallying support among local business leaders and community groups, finding ways to help the whole city population and deal with divides between the haves and have nots.
We had only five months to assemble a board and deliver a strategy for a city dealing with, not only the challenges of the pandemic, but crime, unemployment, and deep social divides. At the same time, there was the chance to make the most of what makes Bradford unique, as the youngest city in Europe, with high levels of ethnic diversity and entrepreneurialism.
Economic planning for a city is more often given to one of the large consulting firms, high-profile business leaders from the region, or to an in-house team in the council. But in extraordinary times, the city council saw the importance of a new approach and linking into the networks and breadth of outlook offered by HE, its ability to seek out new ideas from new sources and find the people motivated to make a difference.
Wearing too many hats and the resulting pressures on time are a real issue for anyone in the sector. But taking on civic roles at this time is essential post-pandemic. Because it’s an opportunity to close the divide which still exists between universities and their local communities, businesses and voluntary groups – a way of demonstrating the practical role of HE to individuals and communities where we live and work.
What’s good for the city is good for the university, and vice-versa. Rather than higher education being the means of sifting just for the “best and the brightest”, universities need to be working across communities and be taken seriously as genuine, hands-on partnera in building for a better post-pandemic UK.
Higher education needs to make more of its distinctive capabilities as a partner – like its independence. The apolitical and non-commercial status of universities means an open door for making and extending partnerships on behalf of communities and bringing together those groups who are less likely to be heard. In Bradford, for example, the university was able to arrange the involvement of the chair of Tesco, the chair of Yorkshire Building Society and the chief executive of a major charity.
The chaos and uncertainty caused by Covid-19, the context of competing voices and arguments, means reliable evidence based on academic rigour and methodology is critical. Our research training is what sets us apart. Support for the Recovery Board strategy was based on a recognition across the local authority, business and third sector stakeholders of resilience of the methodological approach taken and making use of a Delphi style panel of experts alongside other evaluation methods.
Universities are beacons in each region, major employers and influencers. The opportunities for relationships between universities and their immediate populations are greater in number and depth than any other kind of organisation. That means both a store of understanding of local character, particular needs and issues, as well as routes of access and influence on behalf of community campaigns.
That in itself is important for meeting the needs of economies going through rapid change – the need for upskilling and reskilling. Nearly half of HE provision is now vocational and technical that’s been directly informed by an employer need. Graduate start-ups generated more than £1 billion in 2018-19, but the potential for involvement in encouraging and supporting graduate entrepreneurship is still under-exploited.
Volunteering by students in local communities was widespread even before the pandemic: 725,000 students volunteer each year. This is the kind of commitment and willingness to be involved with charities and community action groups that could be harnessed and steered in more strategic ways to help with recovery issues and support community cohesion.
For a sector used to working on a cyclical basis, student teaching, funded research, the need to commit to ongoing relationships and delivery is a challenge. Building a visible role in the community, though, will mean following through on projects, making sure that the thinking phases are only the start and have a pathway to delivery. University leaders also need to be involved and accept their role in the stages of accountability for outcomes.
We have the Civic University Network and its 66 members, and that has been a significant step forward. But for HE to be genuinely recognised as essential and socially-committed partners, not solely self-interested, the coming years need to be used to turn all the potential into a surge of local collaborations.