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Richard Brabner responds to Nick Hillman: Can universities be local, national and global?

  • 31 July 2020
  • By Richard Brabner

This blog was kindly contributed by Richard Brabner, Director of the UPP Foundation. This blog is in response to HEPI Director Nick Hillman’s article in The UK in a Changing Europe ‘Universities and Brexit: Past, present and future

Defining excellence

The UK in a Changing Europe recently published a perceptive and wide-ranging essay from my good friend – and Director of this parish – on the way Brexit (from the 2016 campaign to the future UK-EU relationship) is shaping our universities. There is much to agree with in Hillman’s analysis but the argument he makes about the future of the sector deserves further scrutiny.

Hillman claims there are two overarching concepts of higher education that are likely to be most relevant as discussions around the future of the sector intensify: internationalisation and localism. And he poses a real challenge to universities. Can they truly excel at being international, national and local, all at the same time? Hillman recalls a senior leader from the University of Oxford responding to this question by saying ‘the institution was supporting the government’s ambition to reopen the east/west train link to Cambridge’. This answer did not convince Hillman, who believes that in ‘financially straightened times the answer is almost certainly no.’

It is understandable why Hillman challenges the sector about its priorities. With limited resources, leaders need to strategically decide what their institution should do and where to focus energies to develop ‘excellence’. There is a good reason why answers, like the one from Oxford, are not always convincing. Our idea of excellence is subjective. Even if you take league table positions as a proxy (which is problematic in itself), how do you compare local or civic excellence?

The recent reportAdvancing University Engagement: University engagement and global league tables’ published by King’s College London, University of Melbourne and University of Chicago had a good crack at answering this. Their efforts to convince global league table players to include societal indicators is important. If successful, they will have broadened the rankings’ definition of value. Yet, as much as this is welcome, a global ranking based on centralised and internationally comparable metrics will never comprehensively define civic excellence. A civic university focusses on the economic, social, cultural and environmental needs of its community and region. It is these ‘place’ factors which should drive the activities of a civic university, regardless of whether they are rewarded in a ranking exercise. The context of a university’s place is different from Nottingham to Derby, let alone from a university in one country to another. No crude ranking system can ever fully uncover which university is locally excellent or not.

Covid, Brexit, and the case for the Civic

More fundamentally, choosing to excel at one or two of the international, national or local domains is at best misguided – and at worst could steer universities towards a hierarchy of activity which undermines the vital role all universities should play in their local communities. During the Civic University Commission, we often heard that incentives (policy, funding, reputation) prioritise international, or national activities over local place-based impact. Successful civic universities have local impact despite the incentives in the system. This should be lauded (and is a positive example of institutional autonomy). But how sustainable is this over the medium to longer term if we ask universities to focus on being local, national or international. Placing further incentives in the opposite direction for some (typically elite) universities.

Like my three-year-old using a fluorescent marker pen, Covid-19 has vigorously and indiscriminately highlighted our nation’s strengths, our frailties, and what really matters to society.

For the civic to thrive it needs to be supported by policy, more funding and institutional reputations. While there is positive government rhetoric towards placemaking, sector incentives – critical to institutional behaviours – have not yet caught up with societal needs which emphasise the role all universities play locally. Like my three-year-old using a fluorescent marker pen, Covid-19 has vigorously and indiscriminately highlighted our nation’s strengths (including the response from universities), our frailties, and what really matters to society. Norms created by the pandemic have made people more dependent on their local communities.

As the country moves from a health emergency to an economic crisis, the millions of unemployed will rely on their local universities and colleges for education, retraining and upskilling. As place-based institutions, all universities should embrace this responsibility. That’s not to say every university should be ‘a civic university’. There is a difference between a civic university and a university with a civic role. A civic university frames its strategy and purpose around the civic. A university with a civic role prioritises activities based on an overlap of what it can do and local need. But all universities are part of a local ecosystem. A stronger community equals a stronger university, so regardless of institutional mission, all universities have a responsibility to their local community.

The philosopher John Gray noted in the New Statesman, that the pandemic ‘does not mean a shift to towards small-scale localism’. In the context of higher education, the civic has not become more important than national or international impact, but as Gray also said, ‘the hyperglobalisation of the last few decades is not coming back either’. This era, more than any other, is rebalancing society towards a more harmonious relationship between the local, national and international. Discouraging universities from growing local impact based on an out-of-date perception of hierarchy which places global at the apex, and local at the bottom, would be foolish.

It is also the wrong time to turn away from the civic agenda from a purely pragmatic perspective. To create a positive policy environment, we must win over the public locally and nationally. In this regard, Brexit was partly the inspiration behind the Civic University Commission. I was concerned about the perception of a growing values divide between higher education institutions and the places which voted to Leave the EU. We wanted the Commission to help the entire sector get to grips with the growing importance of ‘place-based’ thinking and demonstrate the positive impact universities have locally. As recent polling by Public First for the UPP Foundation showed, universities’ local engagement with socio-economic groups C2Des (less affluent) is significantly lower than with ABC1s (more affluent). Demonstrating our value to all parts of society is still a work in progress. If we want governments (which tend to be conscious about public opinion) to provide us with significant funding from people’s taxes over the longer-term – whether for tuition fee subsidies or R&D – it is the job of all universities to take local impact seriously.

Being civic and international

When I set up the Commission, I generally thought that modern universities excelled at the civic agenda, and much of the Russell Group (while they were originally created as civic universities) were not taking this role as seriously as they should. That perception might be right for a small number of selective universities, but it was not the uniform experience. As the Commission found:

in some places the… Russell Group universities were actually behaving in a more civic fashion than some newer universities.

That’s not intended as a slight to any post-92 institution, many of which are civic universities to their core. What it highlights is the success some ‘elite’ institutions have had when focussing on local impact – making a real difference to the places they are part of (helped, of course, from having greater resources).

This shows that a trade-off between local, national and international is unnecessary and even counterproductive. Much civic activity is complementary to national and international ambitions. For example, all universities are part of the Office for Student’s regulatory framework, so they could prioritise raising attainment and widening participation for local students, while also maintaining a national and international recruitment strategy. Additionally, for a university to drive economic growth in its community, it has to be working with regional export industries. Likewise, a university with international partnerships can increase investment to local areas. An internationally and nationally renowned university with civic ambitions would make sure these partnerships support regional supply chains. They would ensure local citizens benefit from many of the apprenticeships and jobs which emerge from the scheme.

It would be a real tragedy to weaken this activity and impact because of an attempt to steer certain universities towards focussing solely on their international and national ambitions.

Focusing on place

Whether it is boosting productivity and trade, supporting educational attainment and skills, tackling inequalities between and within regions or protecting vulnerable people, universities will play an indispensable role in helping communities overcome the multiple challenges they face. Not all universities are civic universities, and some will have to tightly prioritise their activities. What should help them focus their civic priorities, however, is an analysis of where their strengths overlap with the needs of their host town, city or region. So, let us return to Hillman’s anecdote about the university leader from Oxford. Was their response to what their university does for the local community such a bad one? (After-all, developing better transport links between two sides of the Golden Triangle seems exactly what Oxford needs). Possibly. What matters is not the issue, it is the purpose. If the university was simply supporting a proposal to develop a line, then yes it was not a convincing response. But if the university was (and is) actively convening support, putting resources behind the scheme’s public engagement and using the intellectual capacity of its researchers to show the economic impact of the line for the region, it would be doing exactly what a university with civic responsibility should be doing. Focussing on the needs of its place.

2 comments

  1. Colin McCaig says:

    Engagement with the local community obviously doesn’t include actually recruiting and teaching students from the local area then, if newer universities are rated less good at this than Russell Group by Richard.

    However the civic agenda is defined, and however valuable it is, to ignore the core business of institutions when scoring engagement makes it look a cosmetic exercise designed to polish the reputations of selective institutions who have heretofore been tarnished by their woeful record on access.

  2. Richard Brabner says:

    Thanks for your comment Colin. Your point about teaching and recruitment is clearly important and a key part of the civic mix (including lifelong learning etc).

    Sorry if my drafting is unclear but I wasn’t intending to imply that ‘newer universities’ are less good at the Civic than the Russell Group as a general rule.

    As someone who formally worked in a post-92 I had the perception that selective institutions had moved away from this agenda, but over the course of the Commission was pleased to see how engaged many were in their local communities on a variety of fronts.

    As the Commission stated “in some places the… Russell Group universities were actually behaving in a more civic fashion than some newer universities.” But the key word there is ‘some’. In other places the post-92 was certainly leading the civic agenda.

    Best wishes,

    Richard

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