Shared identity: universities and their towns are mutually reliant

Ahead of the UK City of Culture 2021 being named next month, Craig Mahoney looks at how winning the title can revitalise towns and their universities

November 22, 2017

The town of Paisley’s contribution to artistic and cultural history was reinforced by the recent announcement by the University of the West of Scotland of a songwriting scholarship funded by one of the town’s most famous sons, singer Paolo Nutini.

As vice-chancellor of UWS, which has its biggest campus in Paisley, I am proud of both the university’s, and the town’s, influence, not only on our cultural heritage, but our future.

We have been closely involved with the town’s bid to become the 2021 UK City of Culture. The plaudits that such recognition would bring to both the town and the university are huge. Paisley has nestled in the shadow of Glasgow throughout its history, which has taken the shine off the town’s own culture, capabilities and opportunities that match those of Glasgow – not to forget its unique character, charm and rich Scottish heritage.

The winner of the City of Culture 2021 title (announced in December) will see a substantial boost in investment, tourism, and both national and international exposure. In exploring the link between a university and its town and brand, it becomes apparent that the knock-on effect on, and of, universities in those cities and towns is invaluable.

We only need to look at Hull – a city not dissimilar to Paisley in some ways, which was named City of Culture for 2017 – as an example of how a small city can punch above its weight on the global stage.

In the first three months of this year, more than 4,200 articles were written about Hull being the UK City of Culture. The immense amount of coverage of the city is reaching the eyes of people across the world. Of particular importance is reaching potential students who may never have heard of Hull before, nor are aware of the university there. To be associated with a town that now has an international reputation as a cultural hub will surely encourage students to consider that location when once it may not have been on their radar.

A Google search for “Hull” throws up thousands of positive stories linked to the city. Even in the run-up to the final announcement for 2021, Paisley has already reaped the benefits of such positive media exposure. Anyone wishing to know more about the university is immediately met with a flood of positive news stories.

However, global media exposure is only one of a host of benefits. Since securing City of Culture 2017 status in 2013, investment into Hull has poured in. It’s estimated that more than £1 billion has flowed into the city through a combination of public and capital investment in cultural and visitor infrastructure.

The “Destination Hull” legacy programme has enhanced pedestrian thoroughfares, created new public squares and revamped the city’s fruit market and waterfront. The knock-on effect means more modern, efficient and appealing environments for students who travel to and live in the city – yet another positive impact for the university.

Big businesses have also taken notice; most notably, Siemens, a Hull City of Culture partner and a company that has invested in a £160 million wind-turbine factory, which opened late last year and has provided 1,000 jobs. The city’s plan targets 7,500 more jobs in the next 10 years and means that graduates from the University of Hull will have stronger prospects of local employment. Never has there been more of a reason for young people born and raised in Hull to stay in the city and study at the university.

If Paisley is successful in its bid for 2021, it can look forward to welcoming a predicted £172 million economic boost and the creation of 4,700 jobs over a 10-year period.

The change in perception brought on by City of Culture has seen Hull move from being ranked number one in Sam Jordison’s Crap Towns, to being named a Rough Guides 2016 “top 10 city”, listed between Amsterdam and Vancouver. Shifting opinion, across the UK and further afield, has seen Hull transform from a once colourless victim of industrial decline to a thriving cultural centre and a destination for people to visit, live, work and, crucially, study.

The benefit to the University of Hull, too, is undeniable. Universities are closely tied to the towns and cities within which they are situated. The student experience is not solely made up of the course or the institution at which they study. The town comes as part of the package. Appealing culture, and the prospect of new experiences and lifestyles, are central to a student’s choice of university.

It’s therefore crucial that, at UWS, we play a central role in promoting Paisley as a destination town. Indeed, any university should jump at the opportunity to take part in such profile-raising exercises.

To this end, we’ve added our significant resources to the town’s arsenal as part of the City of Culture bid. Naturally, the campus reflects the culture, history and societal values of Paisley and we share in the town’s desire to be awarded the title. The award could be a game-changer in presenting a vibrant and exciting face to the world, and as in the case of Hull, helping to attract important inward investment to fuel the region’s economy for years to come.

It’s apparent that universities and their towns are mutually reliant – we are entwined with each other through our branding and identity. Thus, when an opportunity comes along to create a global stamp of recognition that will boost our collective image and reputation, it’s not only important that, as higher education institutions, we play a role, it’s crucial.

I would urge any university in any town or city, to take an active role in community-led initiatives. We have the resources, the commitment and an obligation to pursue common goals to benefit our towns and our universities.

A Paolo Nutini lyric sums up the Paisley City of Culture spirit and ambition nicely: “I got most of the means; and scripts for the scenes. I’m out and about, so I’m in with a shout.”

Craig Mahoney is vice-chancellor of the University of the West of Scotland.

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