The University and the City by John Goddard and Paul Vallance

Geoffrey Alderman on the social and economic benefits that an institution can bring to a locality

March 14, 2013

Why do governments build and fund universities? An obvious answer is that they do so in order to increase the skilled workforce. But such an ambition is a very blunt instrument, since no one can be sure that graduating students will obligingly gravitate towards the employment that some government bureaucrat has mapped out for them. An outcome that is much more certain is that a university will have a direct and even quantifiable impact - or rather set of impacts - on its local and regional hinterlands. It is these impacts that John Goddard and Paul Vallance have set out to identify and evaluate. The University and the City is unlikely to win a prize for its written style or its verbal flourishes. But as a piece of careful thinking about a much under-researched aspect of higher education, it is admirably focused and deserves - and repays - careful study.

The volume dispels the notion that a modern university is or could ever be an ivory tower. Universities and the cities in which they are located are embedded in each other, their mutual societal and economic roles inextricably linked, even in the absence of formal mechanisms of linkage (“science parks,” knowledge transfer “hubs” and the like). To say this is not to denigrate the successes of, for example, Manchester Knowledge Capital (an inter-university initiative) or the Newcastle Science City partnership. Neither is it to deny the obvious advantages that accrue from joint ventures in the field of public health - the critical research outputs that derive from collaborations between universities, local NHS trusts and medical charities.

There are, however, much subtler mechanisms through which these linkages are forged and reinforced. Goddard and Vallance are right to draw our attention to the cultural and creative sectors, and to point out that it is precisely because these “are not dominated by monolithic organisations like the NHS and local authorities” that university participation has proved essential to their success. If the achievements of the Bristol Cultural Development Partnership or the Gateshead-based Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art (which owes much to the efforts of Northumbria University) are too formal for your liking, consider the public performances given by music and drama departments up and down the land and the museums to which universities give bed and board.

Central to the research findings presented in this volume are detailed case studies based on a small number of English cities: Bristol, Manchester, Newcastle upon Tyne and Sheffield. One chapter takes the analysis beyond English shores by considering - broad-brush - social and economic linkages involving universities in Berlin, Rotterdam and Jyväskylä (Finland). The point needs to be made (and it is not made here or elsewhere in the volume as strongly as it might have been) that a university will itself be an employer of local labour and a commissioner of local services. In Rotterdam or Manchester this may be of relatively marginal significance. But if we consider smaller urban centres (especially cathedral cities), this impact may be great indeed.

For the four English cities on which they concentrate, Goddard and Vallance present statistics detailing the growth in student numbers between 1995 and 2011. They argue, correctly, that “tensions between universities and local communities are often most heightened around the large numbers of students living in residential areas” and they point out that the high demand for multi-occupancy rental accommodation can price would-be local homeowners out of the market. But nowhere is the impact of a student population more pronounced - or, in my experience, more controversial - than in the political sphere. Students have votes. And the proactive student vote is now a well-established phenomenon in the political sociology of the British Isles. This may not be so obvious in the four English cities featured in this volume (although if one drills down to ward level, one soon finds electoral anomalies that can be explained only by the presence of a transient student population). But in smaller conurbations (Brighton is a prime example), it is palpable.

The overriding message that Goddard and Vallance convey is that urban development agencies need to acquire a better understanding of their local universities, how they are structured and who makes policy within them. My guess is that they are likely to be surprised (to put it mildly) at what they find.

The University and the City

By John Goddard and Paul Vallance
Routledge, 232pp, £85.00
ISBN 9780415589925 and 9780203068366 (e-book)
Published 4 February 2013

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