This HEPI blog was kindly authored by Richard Calvert, Deputy Vice-Chancellor at Sheffield Hallam University. In this article, he explores the challenge of understanding how we make a difference to the towns and cities where we’re located and argues for a sharper and more strategic approach to measuring and maximising impact.
For all the turbulence of the last decade, one theme which remains at the forefront of our politics is the need to address regional inequality.
Within higher education, it’s a theme that many university leaders have embraced. Why wouldn’t this be central to what universities are about? Many of us were set up as civic institutions, are key anchors within our towns and cities, and contribute in multiple ways to local economies, communities, culture and much more.
It’s also a theme which chimes with many of our students and staff.
A seat at the table
Yet we often find ourselves having to make the case for universities to be seen as central to this agenda. The Levelling Up White Paper was notably quiet on the role of universities, and we struggled to engage on it politically. Locally, we’ve often been more successful, but again we’ve not always achieved the strategic influence or recognition which we might seek.
I’m not going to discount the influence of politics in this, both nationally and locally.
But we also need to look at ourselves, and ask whether we need to do more, both as individual institutions and as a sector, to justify our place at the table.
The Leadership Challenge
One of the critiques of the sector is that we’re good at describing what we do in relation to place, but rather less so at demonstrating strategic intent and impact. It’s a critique that we cannot ignore.
Within this, there are some real leadership challenges. How do we balance strategic cross-university leadership alongside local initiative and enthusiasm? How do we position civic drivers within a business model driven largely by recruitment numbers and research income generation, as well as other national policy levers? And how do we avoid being spread too thin by trying to respond positively to all the potential demands on our skills, resources and capacity?
What we’re doing well
Of course, there are great examples of universities doing things well. At my own University – Sheffield Hallam – we have been involved in much of the sector’s civic activity over recent years, including establishing and hosting the Civic University Network. We’ve also been recognised for undertaking innovative work across a range of areas. This includes a graduate mentoring programme for local pupils following Covid-19. We have also opened an Early Years Community Research Centre in a disadvantaged area of North Sheffield, to share best practice and provide much needed nursery provision. Further, our academics are working with local communities to understand complex health challenges and help address inequalities. Many universities can tell a similar story.
We have also focused as a sector on assessing the economic added value we bring, with impressive numbers on support provided to local business, the impact of international students, and the critical role universities play in addressing regional skills gaps.
The Impact Gap
Yet the challenge of demonstrating real strategic impact at a level which is meaningful to policy makers and local communities can still feel elusive. Some of this goes with the territory. Addressing deep seated inequalities around attainment, shifting the dial on local productivity, or making a sustainable difference at community level are all difficult things to measure.
But there is still much that we can – and should – do as leaders to maximise our potential for impact, as well as our ability to tell a credible and convincing story to others.
Civic University Agreements have been a great route into this for many universities over the last few years, picking up one of the key challenges of the Civic University Commission back in 2019. They have helped to frame ambition, establish key partnerships – both among HEIs and with other civic partners – and provide a focal point for more strategic local activity within institutions. But they have done a less good job so far in capturing targets and metrics, and translating positive intent into measurable programmes of work, and demonstrable impact.
Taking Impact Seriously
One of the answers to closing this gap may lie in the Civic Impact Framework, which has been developed through the Civic University Network. The Civic Impact Framework – Civic University Network
It is designed to support universities and their partners to measure civic impact across a comprehensive set of themes, encompassing both leadership and strategy, as well as impact in specific social, economic, and environmental domains.
It is not about seeking to impose a new set of obligations, and it’s certainly not about starting a new league table. Instead, it asks how universities can maximise positive impact on communities through a clearer process of mapping, partnering and agreeing key impact areas and outcomes. This is then underpinned by clarity on resourcing, evaluating and learning.
The underlying philosophy is that meaningful impact should be measured against the objectives which universities agree locally with their civic stakeholders, which will be context dependant. The focus is on measuring progress and working in genuine partnership.
The Framework is the start of a much bigger endeavour to help universities navigate and embed their civic impact. In January, Sheffield Hallam launched a new £3.7 million National Civic Impact Accelerator (NCIA), a cross-sector research programme that will provide universities with the framework and tools to deliver meaningful, measurable civic strategies and activities; as well as an action learning model to support groups of institutions to maximise both learning and impact. A specific focus of NCIA will be developing the tools and evidence we need to get a better handle on the sector’s civic impact. Where the data sets and evidence for this don’t yet exist, NCIA will seek to address these gaps.
Bringing it together as leaders
Universities are uniquely placed to help deliver change locally. Our good intentions need to be matched by real rigour in understanding where we can have most impact, and how we measure and maximise that. This means mobilising and empowering the skills, capacity and resources across our institutions. But it also means bringing real leadership rigour in sharpening strategic intent, building meaningful partnerships, and seeing through the hard work of measuring, evaluating and lesson learning.
Getting this right is ever more important for our local communities, as we collectively address the challenges of regional imbalance in increasingly difficult economic times. But it is also critical for our credibility and voice as a sector. We have the tools for doing this – not least through the Civic Impact Framework. We have the potential to leverage our institutional power and position for civic good – let’s grab the opportunity to drive positive change.