Unique ubiquity

As institutions embedded within cities and regions, universities can be the catalysts for local action to address national and global problems

February 2, 2023
Dandelion with seeds blowing away
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Is it a contradiction to say that one of the things that makes universities special is their ubiquity?

Perhaps ubiquity isn’t the right word, but they are unusual among institutions of national significance in that they are found everywhere.

This is particularly relevant in countries where one city (London, in the case of the UK) dominates in most things; universities buck the trend, bringing a focus and energy to cities and regions across the country.

They provide jobs; work and spend with local businesses; bring the vitality that comes with students, whether from a few miles away or a few thousand miles; and do a hundred and one other things for their immediate neighbours and wider region.

This is one of the reasons why it is perplexing that universities are targets for so much ridicule and rancour these days, although there is often a divide between negativity about higher education in general, and individuals’ more positive views of their local university specifically.

The significance of universities to cities and regions is, of course, recognised through the civic university agenda, which has come to the fore in recent years.

It has been made more urgent by the pernicious problem of inequality, and the increasingly severe political consequences of the hollowing-out of sections of society in the post-industrial era.

Thinking back over Times Higher Education’s coverage in recent years – particularly the longer analyses of our features sections – this is one of the most important issues we have explored, whether in the north of England, the Rust Belt of America or Germany’s Ruhr Valley.

What the civic agenda recognises is the point I started with: that universities have unusual power because they are everywhere, with influence that discredits those who dismiss them as ivory towers.

An example of that influence is to be found in a new report looking at the carbon footprint of UK universities.

The study, led by the Royal Anniversary Trust, assesses how universities’ carbon emissions stack up, and, as we report, the results demonstrate that direct emissions from operations, heating and power usage account for just 12 per cent of the total.

Everything else is indirect, including such activities as commuting, business travel and student flights, with the largest proportion – a full 36 per cent – coming from the supply chain.

One could see this as someone else’s problem – if emissions are not from the university directly, they are not under the university’s control.

But such a response would be anathema to universities, which are highly motivated to lead the response to the climate crisis; it would also ignore the point that universities are so embedded in their regions that they are ideally positioned to effect change within the supply chain and beyond.

These are among the findings of the report, which suggests a number of concrete steps universities might take, such as combining data from carbon reporting requirements to track emissions from the companies they work with, and working to improve “carbon literacy” among their suppliers.

It also suggests that there may be ways to harness the skill and motivation that exists in abundance among universities’ graduates to inject more expertise into sustainability efforts locally.

The part universities can play locally was also implicit in a recent report for the UK government on its “net zero” target by former universities minister Chris Skidmore.

Among its recommendations were ways to help businesses go green and catalyse local action, and it identified universities (and the strong science base within them) as key national strengths.

A case study in the report demonstrates the success of driving innovation in the local private sector in Preston, Lancashire, where a decade of collaboration between universities, councils, NHS trusts and local businesses had resulted in a big shift in procurement practices.

“Compared to place-agnostic procurement in 2012-13, prioritising procurement from local and socially responsible businesses led to spend… within Lancashire increasing from 39 per cent to 79 per cent of total procurement spend,” the report says.

This is not, perhaps, the most glamorous end of the higher education spectrum, but it’s another reminder of the countless ways in which universities can and do deliver for society, whether or not they get the credit.


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