Universities and society will only recover from Covid-19 through civic engagement

Economic revival in the wake of the pandemic will require all sections of society to play their part, says Janet Beer

August 29, 2020
Women outside a house
Source: Getty

The University of Liverpool, like all of England’s redbrick universities, was established through the support of people in the city, for the city, and we have always been committed to our role as an anchor institution for the whole region.

We have well and truly lived up to this essential role over the past few months, working closely with organisations across the Liverpool region and especially with our NHS partners. Examples include simple but important actions such as opening our car parks up to staff at the nearby NHS Trust and providing halls of residence accommodation for those hospital staff who needed somewhere to stay to protect their families. Our students have also joined the effort, with 230 final-year medical students and nearly 100 nursing students entering the workforce early to support the NHS at its time of greatest need. All these examples, including those that follow, are a demonstration not only of our dedication to our remarkable city, but of the significant advantages all universities offer their regions.

One of the most obvious benefits we have provided for Liverpool has been our outstanding expertise in the field of infectious diseases research. Drawing on the clinical and academic strengths of our Centre of Excellence in Infectious Diseases Research, our NIHR Health Protection Research Unit in Emerging and Zoonotic Infections and the members of Liverpool Health Partners, we have played a pivotal role in leading and structuring the region’s research response to the pandemic.

While our research focuses on providing global solutions to this pandemic, a number of our projects also have specific regional application. For example, our Centre for Genomic Research is part of a national consortium mapping how Covid-19 spreads and behaves by using whole genome sequencing. Here in Liverpool, colleagues have sequenced almost every positive case at local NHS hospital trusts. This work will help us to understand how the virus is spreading and whether different strains are emerging, making it a vital tool in controlling further outbreaks both regionally and nationally.

Another example is colleagues’ work to track and collect Covid-19 data from households across Liverpool. This will help us to evaluate the extent of the pandemic in the community and support our understanding of how transmission is taking place. Given the levels of deprivation in parts of the city, this study will also deepen our understanding of the health dimensions of socio-economic inequalities.

In light of this deprivation, it is perhaps not surprising that Liverpool is among those cities most significantly affected economically by the pandemic in the UK. Here again we have an important part to play as we pull students to the region and businesses into the research and development ecosystem, and add visitor numbers to the city. In Liverpool, we believe students contribute £342 million to the regional economy that in turn has supported over 3,000 jobs. To put this into perspective, our share of the Liverpool City Region’s GDP stands at over 2.2 per cent.

Liverpool’s cultural strengths support a dynamic visitor economy, and the renewal of its cultural organisations as we emerge from lockdown will be vital to the recovery of the city. We are proud to be located in a city that is responding to the challenges of the pandemic in creative and innovative ways, and developing our online cultural offer has been another important means of extending the scope of our civic engagement. Our new online hub, Culture at Home, supports virtual visitors to find cultural assets they cannot currently access in person, share experiences such as online lectures and concerts, gain access to resources to extend their own knowledge and understanding of a range of subject areas, and educate their children. We have been delighted by the response.

Here, again, we have plans to go further, drawing on the work of our continuing education department to offer an even wider selection of short courses and virtual experiences. We will continue to use what we have learned from the lockdown to enhance our civic engagement activities through culture. This means fusing the range and reach of a virtual cultural offer with the immediacy of face-to-face activities, serving diverse communities in innovative ways, learning from what they have to tell us and working with them to support cultural renewal.

As our students return to Liverpool, they too will have an important role to play in our civic activities. Many of our students volunteer or carry out important pro bono work in the city. For example, our Liverpool Law Clinic gives our students experience in the provision of high-quality legal advice and representation for the public. The majority of cases involve employment, family, housing, debt and consumer issues, but the clinic is also one of only two organisations in the UK offering a specialised service to stateless clients. Our plans to support our region’s economic recovery apply here too. Along with our partners, we are currently looking at how we can deploy our great assets – our students – into the industries that need support to adapt to the post Covid-19 economy. We recognise that the economic recovery of the region depends on us all doing our bit, and as we look at developing a regional R&D strategy, new employment initiatives and joined-up sustainable travel plans, the remaining question is: what more can we do.

We have always been proud of our civic role and the Covid-19 pandemic has reinforced the understanding across the region that the potential for economic revival is bigger than anything that could be achieved by any one civic actor. There will be no recovery of the university sector without civic purpose and there can be no long-term national recovery that does not have knowledge assets at its heart. The mission of our university since its foundation has been the advancement of learning and the ennoblement of life, and in these challenging times it is this commitment to improving the lives of all who encounter the university that will guide our work.

Dame Janet Beer is vice-chancellor of the University of Liverpool


The Times Higher Education World University Rankings 2021 will be published at 12pm BST on 2 September. The results will be exclusively revealed at the THE World Academic Summit, which will explore the challenges created or accelerated by the pandemic and identify new opportunities for progressive reform. 

POSTSCRIPT:

Print headline: Community spirit

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