UK’s first ‘dean of place’ turns civic thinking into action

Newcastle’s Jane Robinson wants to work strategically with local partners to help address north east’s post-industrial challenges

August 12, 2019
People looking out the window of the Baltic at the city view of Newcastle upon Tyne
Source: Alamy

Newcastle University’s appointment of a “dean of place” is a first for a UK higher education institution: a statement of its intent to act strategically on the plentiful talk about campuses’ civic roles and to maximise its contribution to addressing the north east’s post-industrial and austerity-driven challenges.

Jane Robinson, a former chief executive of Gateshead Council, took up the new role of dean of place and engagement at Newcastle earlier this year.

“The success of my role is my ability to work across the university and with our partners to maximise [the university’s] contribution – economically, socially, culturally – and make a difference visibly,” she told Times Higher Education.

Ms Robinson used to work for the Arts Council England, which dispatched her north when Gateshead was working on its plan to develop the £70 million Sage music venue, opened on the banks of the Tyne in 2004. She found herself “inspired by the vision and ambition” behind the project, “and the commitment of the local politicians to saying, ‘just because you’re in the north east of England doesn’t mean to say that you don’t deserve the best possible cultural provision’”. She switched to working for Gateshead Council, eventually becoming its chief executive in 2012, before taking the post of chief operating officer at Durham University in 2016.

Newcastle University has a “long tradition as a civic institution”, an aspect that its Tynemouth-born vice-chancellor Chris Day “wanted to emphasise” when he took over in 2017, Ms Robinson said.

Hence the four pillars of the university’s new strategy, which, when represented in graphic form, show “education for life” and “research for discovery and impact” enveloped by “engagement and place” and “global”.

Newcastle’s aim is to work collaboratively and strategically with local partner institutions – similar to the approach recommended by the recent Civic University Commission, on which Newcastle’s doyen of civic university research, John Goddard, served. Ms Robinson’s job is to “translate that strategy into delivery”.

To that end, she spends one day a week with Newcastle City Council working with it and the North of Tyne Combined Authority, part of her effort to hear from the other key institutions in the region – including NHS trusts, colleges and schools – about their needs.

Ms Robinson leads work, on behalf of all four universities in the region, with the business-led North East Local Enterprise Partnership on developing the area’s industrial strategy.

She also works on the ongoing £350 million Helix development, a partnership between the university, the city council and Legal & General on the site of the former Newcastle Brown Ale brewery in the city centre. The development will be home to the university’s National Innovation Centre for Ageing and its National Innovation Centre for Data.

That can all help to “reposition the city and the wider north east as a place of innovation and invention”, Ms Robinson said.

Newcastle’s expertise in ageing research was an example of where the university’s strengths could meet local needs, she continued.

The north east “has some significant challenges, socially and economically”, much of it the legacy of the “decline of the heavy industries” in previous decades, bringing attendant “huge challenges around healthy ageing”, she said. The university’s research on innovative solutions to healthy ageing and independent living – awarded funding by UK Research and Innovation’s Strength in Places fund – can help to close the productivity deficit caused by poor health in the north as well as demonstrating that “the north east and Newcastle is a place where you can build those innovation pathways”, Ms Robinson said.

The research impact agenda and policy pressure to join up higher education and further education in England (likely to be maintained regardless of the fate of the Augar review that initiated it) are among the factors making it essential for universities to think civically, said Ms Robinson. “You can’t tackle some of those challenges without having a really good understanding of your place,” she added.

Prioritising that local and regional role might also be crucial at a time when universities’ value is being questioned in the media, she argued.

And universities can also support local authorities in their “leadership of place role” at a time when council budgets have been slashed under austerity. “Many local authorities have lost a lot of their policy capacity,” said Ms Robinson, so Newcastle was aiming to “bring together the universities with some of the public sector partners to [look at] how you build exemplary evidence-based policy”.

Universities need to be “respectful” of other local organisations with civic roles, and are never going to “fill the shoes of local authorities or schools”, said Ms Robinson. But, she added, if they can “listen and understand”, universities will hear about “the things that are really important in [their] place and identify where [they] can make a contribution to that”, thus bringing their "world-leading expertise into local challenges”.

john.morgan@timeshighereducation.com

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Print headline: Pride of place for civic role

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