Tony Tysome begins our summer series looking at the impact of universities on their local economies and communities.
Regular travellers along University Road in Leicester may soon witness a symbolic change in the landscape.
A wall that blocks a view of Leicester University to all but passengers on the top deck of passing double-decker buses will be knocked down if university planners get their way.
Vice-chancellor Bob Burgess hopes that locals will see the removal of the wall and the creation of a US-style campus precinct in its place as a sign of the university's commitment to remove divisions between town and gown.
Across the country, other higher education institutions are taking equally determined steps to remove physical and non-physical barriers between themselves and their local community in an effort to develop a healthy relationship that benefits the region as well as the institution.
Higher education "shops", the first of which was opened by Wolverhampton University in 1988, are now a common feature on high streets; students are providing mentoring and running homework clubs in local schools; university sports and arts facilities are being thrown open to the public; and institutions are devising initiatives to help local small and medium-sized businesses.
According to a paper published in the journal Local Economy by David Charles, chair of business innovation at Newcastle University, engaging with their region "has perhaps become more important to universities now than at any time since the days of the engineering schools in the 19th century".
This, he argues, is largely the result of changes in the government's definition of a university's mission in a mass higher education system, along with a related rise in demand for skills and knowledge. Other influences include new patterns of urban and regional development; changes in the structure of government; and technological advances.
But Dr Charles adds: "Due to the absence of joined-up government, the full diversity of strands of regional engagement can perhaps be observed only by the HE sector itself, and the contribution of HE is understated in recent government policy statements on urban regeneration, health and culture."
A report on the "regional mission" of higher education published by Universities UK and the Higher Education Funding Council for England two years ago acknowledges that the 1990s saw a renaissance of the sector's regional and civic mission. It says: "There has been an increasing expectation within the policy community, and indeed the general population, that higher education institutions should contribute to the regions in which they are based.
"Such expectations take many forms, but are united around the idea of the sector as a source of knowledge and expertise that can be used by a range of regional stakeholders, as well as the importance of higher education as a means of educating and training people for a more demanding and knowledge-based labour market."
This idea has been taken further since the report's publication by institutions themselves and by regional stakeholders.
A report published by the Work Foundation in November last year contends that without more involvement of universities in their regions, the UK's major cities will not realise their economic and cultural potential.
The report, Manchester: Ideopolis?, argues that globalisation presents a unique opportunity to create a new type of UK city based on the knowledge economy with higher education at its core. Manchester, with its plans to create a "super-university" via the merger of Manchester University and the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology next year, is ideally placed to take advantage of this phenomenon, it suggests.
The report says cities such as Manchester "need to be able to develop new and effective ways of harnessing and boosting the existing research and development capacity of local higher education institutions into effective city/ region competitiveness strategies. In turn, HEIs need to be incentivised to 'anchor' more of their research into their local/regional economic contexts."
In general, it adds: "HEIs need to be encouraged to be more 'of' their areas rather than just happening to be situated in or near a particular city or region."
University managers in Manchester and other parts of the country believe they are already getting to grips with this agenda.
James Power, pro vice-chancellor for enterprise and regional affairs at Salford University, said his institution was gearing much of its work towards empowering local communities and businesses to tackle issues. For instance, it has designed more than 200 e-learning modules for small businesses. It has also set up executive clubs, each with an academic "coach", to help local businesses work out what they need to learn to succeed and grow.
He said: "That's an example of how I hope our knowledge capital will work: sharing of knowledge with the local community and businesses. I call it 'sophisticated knowledge-sharing' because you have to be very clever in the way you share knowledge in order to help people."
Peter Fell, director of regional affairs for Manchester University, emphasises the importance of institutions showing what they have to offer and what they are already providing for local communities.
He said: "I like to say a student is like a hotel guest who stays for 1,000 days. That demonstrates the economic impact of a university on its locality in language that other stakeholders understand. We are possibly the single largest supplier of trade in the local tourism sector. But that can be overlooked unless you point it out."
Many institutions have tried to quantify their economic worth to a region.
Chris Birch, commercial director at Staffordshire University, has calculated that his institution adds about £250 million to the local economy. That figure is arrived at by adding together the spending of students and staff and using a multiplier of 1.7, which economists say reflects the knock-on impact of this spending.
Nearly half the university's students are drawn from the region, and research has shown that these local students are more likely to stay in the area after graduation.
"The university is one of the jewels in the crown that local people can identify with, and that helps raise aspirations and opens up access to new opportunities," he said.
The positive impact of the presence of universities and colleges in cities and towns is often easy to see, according to Iain McNicoll, professor of economics at Strathclyde University and co-author of a report on higher education's economic impact published last year by UUK.
He said: "If you come to Glasgow and look around the city, you will be able to tell where the universities are located, because they are more prosperous and have more facilities than the other areas. The east end of Glasgow used to be one of the most run-down parts of the city. Now it is pretty prosperous and relatively chic. That is totally down to the presence of the universities."
Not everyone living in such economically enhanced areas feels better off because they live near a university, however. Historic tensions have become more acute as growing numbers of students unable to find campus accommodation move into urban areas where bedsit barons have turned cheap houses into multi-occupancy properties.
Such student ghettos can have a negative economic impact by pushing housing prices up beyond the means of first-time buyers and turning whole areas into no-go zones for families.
Problems of noise, petty vandalism, littering, thoughtless or illegal parking and other anti-social behaviour caused by a minority of students can make life miserable for local residents.
Older people who are not landlords, taxi drivers, publicans or shop owners are also unimpressed by the bars, clubs and other facilities opened largely to cater for the student population.
According to Anne Monoghan, community relations manager for the University of Ulster who addressed a town-and-gown conference in June, nuisance caused by a small percentage of students is fast turning into a nationwide problem that threatens to ruin higher education's reputation with the general public.
She said: "Universities may say they bring economic prosperity to a region, but people living in the area cannot see much further than whether they are able to get a night's sleep. I hear of residents who are on anti-depressants and kids who have to be off school because they have not got any sleep. I do not think they experience the positive outcomes of having a university near them."
A growing number of universities is appointing community relations or local liaison officers to monitor and help control the problem. Many have a "three strikes" policy that allows students two warnings before they face disciplinary action for anti-social behaviour. But expulsions are almost unheard of, and some local residents feel institutions are still not doing enough.
Gerard O'Donoghue, Nottingham Trent University's director of estates and resources, said institutions and local agencies needed to display more joined-up thinking about student accommodation issues.
It is also important to raise awareness among students and residents of the benefits they can bring to each other. He said: "We are trying to get residents to understand the role of students in the local community and to get students to understand their impact on the local community. A survey we conducted found there are actually many similarities in the needs and expectations of students and residents."
According to John Baldwin, community liaison officer for the University of Hertfordshire, it is crucial that higher education institutions keep lines of communication open with local people and make them aware that the good things they are doing outweigh the negative effects.
Hertfordshire is building a new campus on an old British Aerospace airfield in Hatfield. When it opens in September, many new facilities will also be available for local people.
Mr Baldwin said: "When British Aerospace closed down in the 1990s, the university became the main employer in the area. If we had not been here, unemployment would have been much worse.
"People have short-term memories and forget things like that. It is our job to remind them."