Estates Management SymposiumUniversities can boost post-Covid recovery by partnering with their local communities

Universities can boost post-Covid recovery by partnering with their local communities

With their local knowledge, higher education institutions are well placed to drive the UK’s ‘levelling-up’ agenda

Universities could play a critical role in the UK’s post-Covid recovery, said panellists at a THE Estates Management Symposium session titled “Civic engagement: how town and gown must work together on future development”. Higher education institutions have scrambled to move online and make arrangements for their students and staff, but the towns and cities they are located in have also suffered during the coronavirus crisis.

“We were well aware, pre-pandemic, of the failing retail centres across towns and cities in the UK with the shift to online retail,” said Sadie Janes, director of development at real estate company Savills. “The pandemic has accelerated that rate of change.”

A 2019 Civic University Commission report found that there was an “incredible willingness” from public universities to be involved in local economic regeneration, said Jon Wakeford, chair of the trustee board of the University Partnership Programmes Foundation, which produced the report. In the post-Covid build-back, there will be increasing pressure for universities to be involved, he added.

This willingness could be a vital part of the government’s “levelling-up” agenda, which aims to regenerate town centres and high streets and invest in cultural and heritage assets.

It is difficult for the national government to design a one-size-fits-all plan to help regions and cities level up when their needs are so different, Wakeford said. “We argue that the government needs to utilise universities to really drive that agenda,” he said. Universities, seen as good investments, also have the ability to leverage finance to fund such partnership-based developments. These partners can range from business to government.

In the case of the pandemic, universities’ deep roots in communities created “a strong set of relationships that allow us to weather storms and to respond very, very quickly”, said Jane Robinson, pro vice-chancellor of engagement and place at Newcastle University. She mentioned the example of Newcastle Helix, a university-led development in the centre of the city. During the pandemic, the university worked with the NHS to establish an integrative on-site Covid hub, which included an innovation lab. 

But the reasons for development should not just be altruistic. A major driver is student experience, something that has come under the spotlight as students are forced to stay home. “Students benefit and recruitment benefits from thriving places, and, in turn, those places hopefully benefit from graduates who want to stay and work in those locations,” said Janes. 

However, it is important for partnerships to be “really clear about the objectives and recognise that the different partners will be having different things that they want to get from the development”, said Robinson. “There’ll be different priorities, and it [helps] to be upfront at the beginning.” 

Watch the session on demand above or on the THE Connect YouTube channel.

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