Professor Jane Robinson is Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Engagement and Place at Newcastle University.
In HEPI’s most recent debate paper, One Nation University, Richard Brabner presents a timely and important challenge about the role universities can play to support a fairer society and stronger communities. As we look ahead to the much-anticipated Levelling-Up White Paper, I wonder if the paper underplays the wider significance of ‘place’ and, crucially, the importance of the relationships with local partners to the contribution Universities can and do make.
Some will find Richard Brabner’s paper uncomfortable reading, but it presents an honest assessment of some of the biggest challenges facing the sector and sets out some clear national policy ideas for how they could be addressed. But I would suggest any national policies must reflect and support Universities working with their local partners to maximise their contribution. This is clearly something which is preoccupying many in the sector. In their latest survey of Vice-Chancellors, Ian Matthias and Mike Boxall observe that ‘many vice-chancellors are driving radical realignments of their universities’ mission and strategies to address pressing social and economic demands’.
I strongly believe that universities need to proactively demonstrate their relevance to their localities and communities and to work alongside partners to play their part, so there needs to be both a local and a national policy response. At the time of my appointment, pre-Pandemic, as England’s first Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Engagement and Place, Newcastle University was making a bold statement of intent to demonstrate how our research and education adds value and helps to bring about real change and benefit for society. So, what does this mean in practice for universities?
1. Mission – Government policy will always be an important driver, but a place-based approach needs to be embedded and authentic. We are clear that Newcastle University exists to benefit society through our education and research. Crucially, social justice is a core value, which runs through everything we do.
2. Long-term commitment – unlike Regional Development Agencies, Local Enterprise Partnerships or other regional structures which come and go, Universities are able to take a long-term view. For example, through our Civic University Agreement with Northumbria University we have made a long-term commitment an Into University Centre. The new Centre in the East of Newcastle provides free after-school Academic Support sessions to 7-18 year olds, with schools where 78 per cent of children receive free school meals, providing aspiration-building workshops and a mentoring programme with current university students and professionals. Once fully established the Centre will work with over 1,100 students a year. In the West end of Newcastle, we have a long-term partnership with the Children’s Community; engaging children and their families, building trust and developing new models of engagement which can be replicated in other neighbourhoods.
3. Connecting education and research – the One Nation paper quite rightly highlights student experience, but if we are to genuinely play a role in a more inclusive economy we need to connect both the research which drives innovation and the skills pathways which enable local people to benefit from the jobs created. We cannot do this alone. For example, through our partnership Energising Blyth we are working with schools, colleges, employers and Local Government in South East Northumberland to connect our research capabilities in battery technology and renewable energy with a programme to support up-skilling and re-skilling of local people of all ages and backgrounds.
4. Our role as anchor institutions – we are large organisations, employing thousands of local people, so committing together with our partners in the NHS and Local Government to social value procurement, ambitious sustainability plans and the Real Living Wage makes a significant difference to people’s lives. Thinking about how we design our estate and working with our cultural venues to create opportunities for thousands of local people to access and engage with the University changes perceptions of not just what we are, but what and who we are here for.
5. Our partners in place – the reality is that we cannot, nor should we, do everything. The One Nation paper rightly challenges universities, but underplays the importance of how we work with our local partners – Local and Combined Authorities, the NHS, cultural and voluntary organisations, industry and many others.
Of course, many of these points were reflected in the excellent Civic University Commission report and there are impressive examples up and down the country, but let’s hope that the One Nation paper and the forthcoming Levelling-Up White Paper provides a platform for Universities to work in partnership with Government and our local partners to build our understanding of what matters to the communities we serve and empowers us to play our part in supporting a more just and inclusive society which will benefit us all.