The UK government should create a £500 million “civic university fund” to incentivise universities to prioritise “securing economic, social and environmental regeneration” in their towns, cities and regions, according to a major new report.
The UPP Foundation Civic University Commission, chaired by Lord Kerslake, the former head of the UK Civil Service, also recommends that universities taking this role should strike “civic university agreements” with other local “anchor institutions” to analyse their “place and people’s priorities” and set strategy. Thirty universities have already indicated that they want to draw up such agreements, which could cover plans for widening participation locally, according to Lord Kerslake, the chair of Sheffield Hallam University.
The commission gathered evidence from witnesses, experts and the public over the past year. Its report warns that “under the pressure to grow student numbers and become global players, universities have lost some of the tangible connection to their places”.
And it says that government policy on universities in England “remains almost wholly national”, criticising the failure to recognise “that universities are anchor institutions in particular in ‘left-behind’ places and their closure could have drastic effects on those areas”.
Lord Kerslake said universities’ civic role was key at a time when there was increasing focus on “left-behind places” and improving regional productivity. Universities have often replaced industries to be “at the centre of what happens to a place” and have a crucial role in “securing economic, social and environmental regeneration”, he added.
But the peer noted that universities are “going through quite a choppy time”, with adverse political and media attention on issues such as fees and vice-chancellors’ pay.
“Bluntly, [universities] need all the friends they can get,” said Lord Kerslake. The civic role of universities “works in both directions – it’s incredibly important to the places and it’s incredibly important for universities to have those places backing them, championing them and, crucially, knowing what they do that’s good for their place”, he continued.
While the commission had found “really great examples of civic engagement”, there were “very few examples of a strategic approach”, and civic university agreements could help remedy this, he added.
The report urges the government to remove “perverse measurements” that “mitigate against civic activity” – such as the use in the teaching excellence framework of graduate earnings data which are skewed against universities whose graduates enter regional labour markets.
And the planned knowledge exchange framework “must be a broad measure of civic impact, not purely research innovation”, the report says.
The civic university fund should be worth around £500 million over five years, the report recommends. Universities would bid competitively for multi-year projects, with a “preference towards supporting places that are both economically and socially vulnerable”.
Another recommendation urges universities to act as “role models” as employers and procurers by paying the “living wage” and using their spending power to “buy local”.
Lord Kerslake warned on the government’s ongoing post-18 education review: “If the government denudes universities of a significant amount of their funding then this civic activity will be at risk.”
The peer said he has met with the new universities minister, Chris Skidmore, describing him as “very open” to the report’s agenda.