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London: The Civic Capital

  • 13 December 2021
  • By Diana Beech

This blog has been kindly contributed by Dr Diana Beech (@dianajbeech), Chief Executive Officer of London Higher – the representative body for over 40 universities and higher education colleges across London. Diana was previously the first Director of Policy and Advocacy at HEPI and served as Policy Advisor to the last three Ministers of State for Universities, Science, Research and Innovation.

In its 2019 General Election manifesto, the Government ambiguously pledged to ‘strengthen universities and colleges’ civic role’. Only a few months later, the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic defined this ambition. Higher education institutions across the country stepped up to the challenge, not only to support the frontline fight against the virus and bolster the NHS, but also to provide assistance to their local communities in myriad other ways – be it through volunteering to help the most vulnerable in society or engaging with local businesses to help regional economies recover.

The connection of universities and colleges to their local communities is now clear for all to see, and higher education institutions across the nation are recognised by policymakers as being among the core civic organisations with the capacity to support citizens and lead the long-term recovery effort.

In London, this is illustrated through my own seat on the London Recovery Board, representing the collective strength of the capital’s higher education sector, as well as the University of London’s role as a founding signatory of the first-ever city-wide Anchor Institutions’ Charter. This is a significant sign that City Hall and London Councils now view the capital’s higher education institutions as key institutional partners to deliver and support critical work across the City of London and the 32 London boroughs.

Nationally, however, the picture remains very different, and I cannot help but notice that when ministers and politicians refer to ‘anchor’ or ‘civic’ universities today, they are not necessarily thinking about those in large cities like London but, rather, about institutions in post-industrial towns and cities. Indeed, in his recent HEPI blog, former Universities Minister Chris Skidmore called for a re-set of how we recognise and reward universities’ contribution to our country – away from a certain type of mobility, ‘namely to London and the South East’, and toward talent retention and opportunity-creation in the regions.

While I wholeheartedly support a focus on regional-specific outcomes, this new ‘politics of place’ must not exclude London. With a higher student intake from their local area than anywhere else in the country, London’s higher education institutions are local too and are often the lynchpin in a city where, even before the Covid-19 pandemic, half the boroughs ranked in the most deprived third of English local authorities. Couple this with the slowest employment recovery in the country – with higher rates of redundancy, lower rates of re-employment and lower growth in job vacancies – the challenges facing London and local Londoners should not be overlooked.

To shine a light on the vital contribution that London’s higher education institutions are making to improving life in their local areas, today at London Higher we have published the first-ever pan-regional map of civic university activity in England. With over 150 examples of university-led work across six different thematic areas, the London Higher Civic Map is a vital tool for local and national policymakers, enabling them to see clearly what our members are doing to help the local recovery effort, where they are working and with whom. Our map also helps to identify civic activity ‘cold spots’ in the region, with a view to helping our members forge future strategic partnerships to address challenges and inequalities in areas where they are most needed.

Many of the civic activities listed on our map go above and beyond what most people would expect higher education institutions to do. Most notably, St George’s, University of London, runs the ‘Inside Science‘ engagement programme in collaboration with HM Prison Wandsworth to engage inmates in science and showcase their ideas through art; while Coventry University London has a partnership with the Providence Row Housing Association, which helps homeless people in Tower Hamlets.

Some of our members’ contributions also defy disciplinary boundaries. For instance, Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance is helping to improve health outcomes in Greenwich and Lewisham through its ‘Singing for Good Health‘ programmes for those with living with long-term lung conditions, Parkinson’s or needing help with pain management; while the Royal Veterinary College is supporting business development in Camden through its London BioScience Innovation Centre, which provides wet-laboratory and office space for around 30 small-to-medium-sized enterprises (SMEs).

While we are rightly proud that London has the highest density of higher education providers of any UK region, through the new interactive London Higher Civic Map, we can now show why each one is important in their own right and highlight the benefits they bring to their local communities.

London’s challenges are numerous and real. And while we look to Government to take the region’s levelling up needs as seriously as those of elsewhere, we can at least show the nation that London’s higher education institutions care and, collectively, have significant civic clout to help lead the capital and country to recovery.

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