Lessons from America. When was your vice chancellor last asked for a selfie?

Kevin Richardson, of the Centre for Urban and Regional Development Studies, reflects on study visits to his American alma mater and asks what might we learn about their civic universities?

Higher education in the United States of America is heavily devolved to individual states where public universities operate within systems of regulation broadly similar to that which we have now in England.

Many American universities are positively and deeply embedded in their local communities and economies. Most students come from the local state. Their footprint dominates the local environment and economy. Yet this emphasis on place does not appear to detract from excellence. Over forty of the world’s top universities can be found in the USA compared to ten in England. Cultures are different and not everything transfers but what can we learn about their civic role from our American cousins, especially when actions can be delivered quickly and easily at little or no cost?

Lessons from America

Visible leadership is critical. Not just of the institution but across the community. A form of leadership where almost every student, local resident, and local firm knows the face, name and, critically, the values of the president (vice chancellor) and of the university. One where, as a local “mini-celebrity”, the president is routinely waved at when walking across campus, asked for a “selfie” when sat at lunch in the university union, or cheered loudly by students when appearing at an event on campus.

If one of the aims of our industrial strategy is to increase the value of research contracted by local firms, would this part of its civic mission not benefit more from this kind of visible leadership?

Making sense

Local accountability is linked and also key. Universities in England routinely provide reams of performance data to central bodies as part of their accountability to ministers. Many also produce reports which show just how important they are to local economies in terms of Gross Value Added (GVA).

But, as the devolutionary process continues to roll forward, and as more parts of the country continue to fall economically ever further behind, the demands from local stakeholders (especially elected mayors) will only increase. To that audience, universities need to communicate in different ways about different things. Few people, even in universities, understand fully what is meant by the obscure term GVA. Local stakeholders want to know in a language and a format they understand:

  1. How many people do you employ and how many jobs are for local people?
  2. What skills do they need and how much do you pay them?
  3. How much do you spend with local firms on goods and services?
  4. How do you help them compete fairly for contracts?
  5. How many poor people from our area go to our university?
  6. How many BME and LGBT people from our area go to our university?
  7. What volume of greenhouse gases do you produce?
  8. Critically, what have you done that has helped increase the performance or productivity of our local firms?

Local assets

American universities also routinely run bus services, sports stadia, sports centres, theatres, cinemas, nightclubs, restaurants, food banks, etc – not just for the use of students, but also for local residents, many of whom are alumni.

These universities also often provide spare facilities free of charge or at a very low cost to local schools, colleges and community groups, especially over weekends when not required for academic needs. Not all buildings or spaces are suitable for sharing – but it is often suggested that average space utilisation within some English universities can be as low as only two days each week. So, is there plenty of spare space we can share better if we just managed it a bit differently?

Who knows? Eleven-year-old kids gaining a practical understanding of a university environment every single week might just enrol at that university in a few years’ time?

Just do it

Opening up the university to the community and playing a stronger civic role using these different methods can be quickly and easily taken with good management. Most changes can be done without the need to spend much money at all. Taking this practical approach of “just do it” will certainly help do good. It will also provide local transparency and accountability that is increasingly needed. Reporting openly and locally and performance will itself drive changes in performance but universities will add even more value if it is part of a wider strategic approach to building strong corporate leadership, and the new individual and institutional cultures that are needed to build a network of genuinely civic universities.

This is an extract from a submission of the author to the UPP Foundation Civic University Commission. Suggested further reading: Goddard, P; Hazelkorn, E; Kempton, L and Vallance, P  “The Civic University: The Policy and Leadership Challenges” (2016) Cheltenham. Edward Elgar Publishing Ltd.

7 responses to “Lessons from America. When was your vice chancellor last asked for a selfie?

  1. You mention that universities in the USA run services (e.g. public transport) for local people and that many of these are users are alumni – perhaps this is the difference between the attachment local people have to their local university here in the UK as we have low rates of retention of students staying in the area once they graduate (sorry i don’t have the data to hand / may not apply to all universities in the UK)

  2. Interesting points, undermined by the comparison. If USA is about 6 times the population size of England with a slightly higher GDP per capita, it should have over 60 ‘top’ universities to England’s 10. Actually England has more ‘top’ universities per person than the USA.

  3. What you have described about the US is exactly something I have seen not happening in the UK. As an American coming to the UK, I think a more socially minded leadership team is needed at institutions that tackle all key stakeholders and use them in ways that benefit current students to be successful. My hope is that Office of Students will bring that US mindset in how UK universities should be working on behalf of their stakeholders: Students and Alumni.

  4. Thanks for your feedback. Very much agree. Attachment to a local university is often very high in US universities. I have some very interesting quotes from students such as ‘I’m going to (post) grad school next year. There is no need to think about anywhere else. I’m staying here. I love it here. It’ll break my heart when I need to leave” Little wonder philanthropic donations from alumni are sky high?

  5. Thanks for your comment. For me, a ‘top university’ is one that combines excellence in teaching, research AND in acting as an anchor institution, showing real collaborative leadership, working with and for the people and communities they serve. We do have some of these here in England, but I do think the US out scores us in these aspects. I added the relative comparison as I often heard from some people that our universities are ‘better’ than those in the USA. Only those who haven’t attended or studied at a US college would make that argument. They are neither better nor worse – but they are very different. The university I visited brought in over 30 million dollars last year in philanthropic donations. They must be doing something well? But, regardless, its a good debate to have. The need to learn from others is ever more important, and more need to make that effort?

  6. If USA is about 6 times the population size of England with a slightly higher GDP per capita, it should have over 60 ‘top’ universities to England’s 10. Actually England has more ‘top’ universities per person than the USA.
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