Civic engagement ‘imperilled by UK sector financial crisis’

Collection of essays honouring Lord Kerslake calls for redrawing of incentives to support universities’ work in their local communities, including possible levy on international students’ fees

July 10, 2024
Flats on the Park Hill Estate, Sheffield
Source: iStock

Universities’ work in their local communities could be severely undermined by the financial crisis engulfing the UK sector, according to a report which argues that funding and reputational incentives must be redrawn to push civic engagement up the agenda.

One of the suggestions in the collection of essays published on 10 July by the UPP Foundation in memory of Lord Kerslake, the former chair of governors at Sheffield Hallam University, is that a levy could be imposed on international students’ fees to combat the effects of “studentification”.

Lord Kerslake, the former head of the UK’s Civil Service, who chaired UPP’s Civic University Commission, died last year.

The commission he led was widely credited with encouraging universities to rethink their roles as “anchor institutions” and to prioritise afresh relationships with their towns, cities and regions. Dozens have struck “civic university agreements” with local authorities and other partners, setting out how they can work together better.

The 266-page essay collection, edited by recently retired Sheffield Hallam vice-chancellor Sir Chris Husbands and UPP Foundation executive chair Richard Brabner, includes contributions that acknowledge the commission’s impact but also warn that its achievements are fragile as growing numbers of universities make redundancies and cut courses.

Campus resource: We must acknowledge our positionality to inclusively engage the community

“Faced by apparently existential threats, universities are unlikely to prioritise the needs of their local communities,” warns William Whyte, professor of social and architectural history at the University of Oxford, in one entry. “In a period of significant retrenchment, the perennial tendency of universities to downplay the civic will inevitably be exacerbated by their need to prioritise academic reputation and to secure financial support from well beyond their immediate context.

“Despite much interesting work on the issue, the league tables used by students and policymakers alike continue to reward almost everything but civic engagement. In a struggle for survival, with a thousand and one other issues to contend with, the civic could easily be at a disadvantage.”

Professor Whyte is one of several contributors to argue that the drivers of university behaviour need to be revised, noting that the Research Excellence Framework, which governs the distribution of around £2 billion annually, reserves the highest praise for “world-leading” and “internationally excellent” outputs, suggesting that “locally significant work is somehow second-rate”.

Several contributors suggest that devolving a greater share of higher education funding to metropolitan mayors or local authorities might be part of the solution.

“If local areas…controlled funding to double the teaching grant on subjects of local economic importance, or even to fund significant research streams in those areas, it would change the orientation of [a] university,” writes Rachel Wolf, a founding partner of the consultancy Public First, in one entry.

Benjamin Little and Johanna Forster, associate pro vice-chancellors for civic issues at the University of East Anglia, write that institutions need longer-term funding if they are to create new departments and research centres to work on issues of local importance, and suggest that bonds for this purpose could be provided by the UK Infrastructure Bank, to be “written off if certain key targets were met, agreed by the bank and regional stakeholders”.

A contribution from Ross Renton, principal of Anglia Ruskin University’s Peterborough campus, co-authored with Matt Gladstone, chief executive of Peterborough City Council, and Rob Bridge, chief executive of Peterborough and Cambridge Combined Authority, suggests that the Department for Education “should establish a strategic development fund to support the formulation of regionally-led business cases for new higher education providers”.

And Nick King, founder of Henham Strategy, suggests that central and local governments should introduce financial incentives to encourage students to stay and work in the area where they studied after graduation.

“Measures such as varying student loan repayments, or granting partial or full council tax exemptions…could be introduced – and would serve as a sharp incentive for graduating students to stay in a local area,” he writes.

Perhaps the most radical suggestion comes in a contribution from UPP’s Mr Brabner, which outlines how, although students bring many economic and social benefits to the towns and cities where they live, they can also put significant pressure on local infrastructure and housing stock.

“If government wanted to be really bold, it could consider the option of creating a community levy paid for by universities as a proportion of their international fee income,” writes Mr Brabner, with the revenues used by mayors to help “mitigate the impact of studentification”.

He acknowledges that the idea would “annoy” universities, but argues that the benefits “could be significant, particularly if it focused on directly enhancing the value of international students to those affected by town-gown relations, and those who…don’t always feel the benefits of universities in their community”.

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