The 21st century civic university


It’s a bittersweet moment when one finds an idea one has been nurturing has already been developed by someone else. I felt this when doing some preparation for an event this week hosted by the Leadership Foundation for Higher Education, called ‘Leading cities – place based leadership and the role of universities’.

On the basis, admittedly, of limited knowledge I have developed two opinions about links between universities and the towns, city or region they inhabit: first, these links tend to be limited and ad hoc; second, there is an inverse relationship between the academic standing of a university and its enthusiasm for such links. Indeed it almost seemed to me that (apart from high tech spin-offs) the elite Russell Group universities perceived anything but the most superficial local links as undermining their aspiration to be seen as leading edge global institutions.

This impression was in part confirmed by ‘Re-inventing the civic university’ an excellent pamphlet commissioned by NESTA and written by Professor John Goddard. He too bemoans both the weak links in most places and the tendency to assume that civic relationships are much more relevant to the ‘post 1992’ universities. However, Goddard’s pamphlet is also a very positive contribution to the debate, exploring the many different dimensions of university-city links and providing powerful case studies from Newcastle and Michigan showing what is possible when university leaderships commit to engagement. 

John Goddard is also the joint author of the report which provides the basis for this week’s event: ‘researching and scoping a higher education and civic leadership development programme’. Predictably, perhaps, the report finds that one of the biggest barriers to better partnership is the complex and cumbersome management structure of universities (yes, even more complicated and opaque than local authorities). It is one thing, the authors say, to get vice chancellors and pro vice chancellors signed up to partnership, it is another entirely to make this concrete and meaningful at a faculty or departmental level.

My only quibble with the Leadership Foundation report is with its proposed development programme. This seems to be largely based on a fairly traditional model of training, away days and visits. Instead, I think the Foundation should develop an innovation group in which selected universities and cities sign up to focussing on the development of a particular aspect of civic partnership and then support, and learn from, each other through the innovation process. This approach is suited to an area like this in which there is a wide variety of areas to be addressed, for instance:

• The role of universities in civic leadership

• Strengthening the links between place and university applied research

• Initiatives to promote access and inclusion

• Links around business and product development (although this is already a well-trodden area)

• Academic and student civic volunteering        

• Universities and local public sector innovation 

As John Goddard argues, many of our most established universities were created by civic leaders who saw advanced learning as critical to their city’s future and the aspirations of its people. The old polytechnics used to be part of the local authority. But centralised assessment, subject silos, the globalisation of elite higher education and competition within the sector have tended to erode these links. Now is the time for the emergence of a new model for a 21st century civic university.

It’s a great idea. If only I’d had the gumption to do something about it when it occurred to me!

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