The civic role of the university

It was a full house at the UPP Foundation / Wonkhe Policy Forum, held at the University of Liverpool’s campus in London, last week.

The civic role of a university is one often confused with the university’s relationship with the public sector, the “civilising” role of higher education, or the outreach work that universities do. It is also the focus of an independent inquiry currently underway by the UPP Foundation’s Civic University Commission, launched earlier this year, on how universities can fulfil their civic role in the 21st century.

Deborah Bull, of King’s College London, said that civic engagement is not an extra activity for universities to add on top of what they already do, but rather about doing their research and teaching differently – to integrate civic engagement into the type of student they educate and the type of knowledge they generate. Many universities consider international engagement to be at the expense of local engagement – but Deborah stressed that there is not necessarily a tension between the two, and that universities can pursue both simultaneously with better integration of civic engagement into their existing activities.

Kevin Richardson, of Research England, stressed that there is a lot of good practice from universities in the United States for UK providers to look to. The overall scale, volume and intensity in the US around the role of a university and its place is “on another level”. According to Kevin, a practical solution could be for universities to offer use of their estate to their local communities more: “about 30% of university estates are currently being used at a time, why aren’t we making that space available for schools?” He added that a lot of the activities that could improve a university’s civic engagement are not costly and, in many cases, could even save money.

Jane Robinson, of Durham University, said that we need to see civic engagement as part of the core role of a university. She made the case for universities to think about what matters to people living locally, and to engage them in co-designing solutions which will make a difference to their lives. She also mentioned that higher education as a sector trumps all other sectors she has worked in, in terms of acronyms and “slow decision making”.

A civic priority

When asked where the funding for civic activity would come from, all three panel members were positive, agreeing that there did not need to be large amounts of funding redirected towards civic engagement – this engagement can be integrated into universities’ existing activities, or achieved by making use of under-used resources. The point is that a university’s civic role needs to be given higher priority by leaders.

The chair, Richard Brabner of the UPP Foundation, urged submissions to the Civic University Commission, which will take evidence from stakeholders, expert witnesses, and the wider public – with a view to publishing its final report in December.

One response to “The civic role of the university

  1. So, let’s have “civic engagement” explicitly connected with “widening engagement”…or widening participation for those who didn’t read the WonkHe blog this week

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