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A cross-system reframing of the civic university can help rebuild an infrastructure of opportunity

  • 13 December 2022
  • By Liz Shutt

This blog was kindly contributed by Liz Shutt, now Programme Director for the new Insights North East initiative at Newcastle and Northumbria Universities. Until recently Liz was Director of Policy for both the University of Lincoln and the Greater Lincolnshire Local Enterprise Partnership. The blog refers to work undertaken in this previous role.

[G]overnment, states, local communities, schools, colleges, companies, families, and personal and professional networks all help form the infrastructure of opportunity. When opportunity vanishes, it is because this infrastructure has eroded or even failed.

Fiona Hill, There Is Nothing for You Here: Finding Opportunity in the Twenty-First Century, 2021, New York: HarperCollins, p.11.

The infrastructure of opportunity is a central proposition in There is Nothing for You Here, the 2021 memoir of Donald Trump’s former Russia adviser, Fiona Hill. In the book, Hill argues that such an infrastructure has diminished significantly over recent decades, and that education will play a vital role in rebuilding it.

The proposition leads me to consider the role of universities. They have largely been missing, or at least their role has been underplayed, in the UK Government’s levelling up plans. This is despite an increasing focus on civic universities over recent years within the higher education sector. The 2019 UPP Civic University report set out the many and varied ways in which universities interact with their place, and yet outside of the sector their role is still seen in quite narrow terms.

A systems approach to the civic university 

The full potential of universities to address significant inequality in the UK is often not cutting through. My position in a cross-organisation, cross-system role, working for both a University and a Local Enterprise Partnership made this very clear to me. For example, the language of playing a civic leadership role, with which we are very comfortable in higher education policy circles, does not always sit so well with local authority colleagues. Nor does it fit the nuance and complexity of local partnerships and the interplay between local government, universities and a myriad of other local actors. One might argue that there is more of a tangled web than a series of distinct anchors – this requires blended and distributed leadership. 

Systems-thinking is not a new concept, but the renewed focus on it is timely in the context of reducing and fragmenting funding drivers. These drivers could ultimately work against levelling up, given that sustained, multi-faceted and co-created interventions are the way to deliver lasting impact.

Commission on Greater Lincolnshire Inequality

At the University of Lincoln, this framing led to a re-examining of its role to address regional inequality. We ran a Commission on Greater Lincolnshire Inequality throughout 2022. The Commission engaged with more than 100 people from within the University and from more than 50 external organisations to consider the drivers of regional inequality. Through the work of the Commission, we identified a number of areas of focus for a cross-system approach. Focusing attention here could help rebuild an infrastructure of opportunity in all places.

1. Delivering inclusive opportunity

Universities operate in a unique space to deliver inclusive opportunity. Their research generates new discoveries that will shape future opportunities, while the education and knowledge exchange they deliver can support people and enterprises to succeed in that world. By drawing these activities more closely together, universities can act as a pivot point to translate innovation into opportunity. Strong connections with further education and schools are critical to increase access for all parts of the community. Acting in this way could:

  • drive demand for new ways of doing things and different skills;
  • increase the number of quality job opportunities;
  • increase the impact of research and innovation; and
  • increase growth and productivity.

One particular area of focus could be the development of place-based, new opportunity networks. These networks could connect key education and training stakeholders with third sector community organisations, social enterprises and businesses to coordinate support for adaption to the new economy. They could share data and insights about new trends and the network could be made accessible to help build social capital for individuals.

2. Taking action

Universities can build understanding of what works so that action and investment can be directed to have maximum impact. There is still a huge gap in understanding what interventions have had most impact and how they interrelate with each other. It is a particularly acute issue for rural and coastal dispersed communities given that much of the research into what works has focussed on larger cities and agglomerations. The current ESRC/ AHRC/ Innovate UK opportunity to develop Local Policy Innovation Partnerships (LPIPs) seeks to address this issue with a focus on collaboration to identify place-based solutions.

3. Building collaboration

A central finding of the Civic University Commission was that the civic activities of universities were often confined to a portfolio of individual interventions rather than a coherent place-based strategy. Our Commission identified that improved collaboration across the University could support greater regional level collaboration since it has many existing touchpoints. In addition, we identified key roles that could be described as ‘super-connectors’, a concept introduced to me by Jacqui Bunce, Programme Director at the NHS Lincolnshire Integrated Care Board. The concept describes a network of individuals who can help bridge the gaps between organisational structures and boundaries.

4. Creating long-term sustainability

In policy circles, we often talk about there being a case for government intervention where there is a market failure, but what happens when the policymaking system works against progress? Aside from the policies of any specific government, the four-year election cycle means that long-term investment in change is extremely difficult to secure. This is where local collaboration needs to step up. Places need to make their own luck and build tailored plans based on core needs, assets and opportunities. An increased evidence base around what works can help places to de-centre funding calls and instead develop long-term programmes for change that are funded through a variety of sources.

A collective effort

I will begin as I started, with Fiona Hill:

Opportunity does not materialize from thin air and no one does anything alone. Barriers to opportunity and social mobility are personal and universal. Any individual success is a team or collective effort.

Fiona Hill, There Is Nothing for You Here: Finding Opportunity in the Twenty-First Century, 2021, New York: HarperCollins, p.11.

There is no doubt that places face huge challenges as they seek to rebuild an infrastructure of opportunity, particularly in the current financial climate. But an encouraging finding from our Commission is that deeply committed people and organisations are already doing the work. Further connection and collaboration over the long-term can significantly increase their impact.


  • HEPI and the University of the Arts London are hosting a free event to launch major new research on new HE funding options, produced by London Economics. More information is available here.

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