Universities and places - a framework - RSA

Universities and places - a framework


  • Higher education

It's interesting and challenging to get the chance to turn theory into practice. Working with a Russell Group university, I am exploring the practical realities involved in enacting my long held view that universities should more explicitly and concertedly seek to benefit the localities in which they are based.

Over the years I have often posted on the topic of university locality links. I've referred to the excellent work of Professor John Goddard (FRSA) on the civic university and I've repeated the observation that the more successful and globally-oriented a university is, the less it seems to be committed to partnering with other local institutions and agencies. So it was with some trepidation that I responded to a request from a Russell Group university to join an independent inquiry into enhancing its role in its local sub region and region. It's so much easier being pious and opinionated than devising a credible and impactful method of change.

The inquiry is only half way through so I don't know whether my ideas will be taken up (which is why I am being a bit coy about the university's identity), but at our most recent meeting, based on the consultations and discussions so far, I offered a framework for local engagement. I'm sharing it in this post.

The framework is based on three domains for action - strategy, collaboration and good citizenship.

In the first, the key requirement is vision. The university's leadership needs to demonstrate a deep and long term commitment to making a local contribution. One way of doing this would be to include metrics about the locality (economic and/or social) in the university's own strategic targets. For the university to say 'we can't truly be successful unless we are part of a successful place' sends a powerful message.

Alongside this, university authorities need to commit to participation in local leadership bodies such as the Local Enterprise Partnership. And the university needs to see itself, through its expertise and research, as an important and generous source of insight for local agencies - a local think tank - seeking to understand issues and develop strategies.

The second domain is collaboration and here the key issue is effectiveness. Simply, is the university engaging with local people and agencies in ways which maximise its chances of success and the success of its partners? For example, does the university inform and consult when it is making decisions which could affect the locality (positively or negatively) and does it respond to invitations from other local bodies to engage?

The university I am engaged with has a bewildering array of formal and informal relationships but there is little sense of these being pulled together; collaboration requires the university itself to work effectively, helping to ensure that relationships are coordinated and aligned. As an example of good practice, some American universities host regular community forums to check in on local relationships and explore the potential for further collaboration.

If enlightened self interest should drive better collaboration, the final domain - being a good citizen - is about social responsibility and generosity. This is often what people focus on when it comes to universities and civic engagement. It is the domain for volunteering (student and staff) and philanthropy. But it is also the drive behind attempts to widen participation (even though this is a Government requirement as well) through engaging disadvantaged schools and young people.

One under explored dimension here is alumni; currently mainly exploited for fund raising purposes, alumni networks could be powerful when the wider locality needs more leverage and influence.

Good citizenship is also about recognising and taking responsibility for externalities. On the whole, successful universities are good news for the localities in which they are based. But there are downsides too, from overheating the local housing market to anti-social aspects of the student night time economy. The good citizen university recognises these issues and is willing to enter into serious discussion about mitigating them.

There are many specific aspects of university civic engagement that I haven't touched upon - from the work we have done at the RSA on graduate retention, enterprise and economic growth (collaboration) to the vexed issue of community use of university facilities (good citizenship) but I hope this framework is a guide to how to take a comprehensive approach.

There is already good practice in university locality relations and various pressures and expectations are driving more, but the gap between the potential and the reality remains large. Filling it will be central to the widely shared goal of more vibrant, distinctive and economically dynamic places.


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