Proposed funding cuts arising from England’s Augar review would “put at risk” the growth of the civic role of universities, the former head of the UK Civil Service has warned.
Lord Kerslake, chair of the UPP Foundation Civic University Commission, sounded the warning at a conference launching the new guide to preparing Civic University Agreements (CUAs).
The Augar review recommended that tuition fees be lowered to £7,500, with the Treasury providing full replacement funding for the lost income – but weighted towards high-cost subjects or those with the greatest “social and economic value”, which could spell cuts for some institutions.
Lord Kerslake, who is also chair of governors at Sheffield Hallam University, said he was pleased that Philip Augar’s report was “positive about the civic role” of universities.
But the report contained a “big risk for the sector and one big risk for the civic role” of universities, if funding is significantly cut, he warned.
“I think it would be a real tragedy, if in this point of growth of the civic role, it was put at risk by some decisions on funding,” added Lord Kerslake.
The commission held a year-long inquiry into the future of the civic university and its key recommendation was around CUAs – civic plans, rooted in shared analysis between universities and other key local institutions of local needs and opportunities.
A total of 54 universities have already pledged to produce CUAs, which Sir Bob described as a “remarkable figure”.
Universities who have made the pledge will focus on how they can help foster economic, social and cultural well-being for their local towns and cities.
CUAs are intended to be “dynamic plans based on the needs of the whole area” and “not exercises in public relations”, said Lord Kerslake.
Universities, alongside local authorities and NHS trusts, are the “anchor institutions” of towns and cities and have a “big impact on their success or otherwise”, he added.
And with local authorities being “bluntly pulverised” by cuts, the role of universities is more important than ever, he argued.
Also speaking at the conference, Sir Nicholas Serota, chair of Arts Council England, said universities can play a “vital role in any town, city or region” and that the CUA initiative was “timely”.
For some universities there had been “a long tradition of looking rather inwards in a way which can be seen almost as aloof”, which has left its mark on the relationship between the institutions and the towns and cities where they are located, he added.
In the past 10 years, the “squeeze on local authority funding has created a crisis” for several of the big arts organisations and they have often turned to local universities as “their lifelines”, he continued.
Universities have become a “vital partner” in developing the role of arts in society as a "fourth pillar" alongside local arts trusts, local authorities and the Arts Council, added Sir Nicholas.
The UPP Foundation will be launching a competition for universities and other organisations to host the “Network for the Civic University”, later this summer.
Seed funding will be awarded to the winning bid to establish the network, which will develop best practice, create a peer-review benchmarking system and advocate for the civic role nationally.
Speaking in the foreword to the new CUA guide, Chris Skidmore, the universities minister, said it was “right” that universities are “challenged to think more about their strategic position in their local area”.
He encouraged universities to think about how “their local engagement can be aligned with national initiatives and their regulatory requirements”.
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