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The post-pandemic civic university: how can HE become genuinely place-informed?


Following the announcements made in the March 2021 Budget, should universities and their senior teams be more or less interested in the future of the cities and towns which host them?

Predictably, this blog argues for proactive university consideration of the consequences of disruptive game changers like Covid-19 and Brexit for their civic involvement and positioning. ‘Economic renewal in the shadow of a pandemic’, a paper produced for the Institute of Economic Development (IED) as part of its Local Economic Renewal wprkstream, is offered as a relevant contribution to this consideration.

The Budget and accompanying ‘Build Back Better: our plan for growth’ has been viewed as broadly status quo for universities – reconfirming the importance of research, innovation and skills agendas; clarifying international talent visa regimes; whilst making few university-specific commitments – financial or policy. On the other hand, place-based agendas seem to have increased in profile. Stewarding town and city funding programmes, establishing freeports, preparing for levelling up, community renewal bids and civil service relocations, amongst others, sit alongside acute financially-driven pressures on discretionary local services.

The HE sector should be seriously interested in ‘good’ place-based economic strategy going forward. This is not just as an additional channel to access relatively cheap government capital investment, but as part of their institutional reinvention and ‘future campus’ drivers in a post-pandemic, post-Brexit world. The CLER paper presents a framework that local leadership teams – normally including local universities – should ensure they are addressing.

Universities are going to be critical to their cities and towns in planning and delivering change effectively. Their knowledge aggregation and intelligence roles in understanding strategic choices – perhaps embodied in a formal observatory-type function – can underpin any evidence-informed approach. Their education and skills capabilities will need to adapt to the requirements of accelerated digitalisation and automation, to the retraining of those displaced by these trends, and more generally to provide ladders of progression into employment for young people who have borne some of the highest economic costs of the pandemic and potentially of the changes in globalisation and city-based agglomeration.

In many places, universities will be the key anchors of innovation eco-systems and enterprise ‘help to grow’ regimes required by Government as the new successor to 2017’s Industrial Strategy. Their expertise in life sciences, super-computing and green technologies, among others, is a major resource for defining and delivery-managing local solutions. Their economic and physical footprints are also major determinants of how cities and towns work as places – from transport to labour, housing and leisure markets. In specific cases they are also direct role players in freeports, town and city deals, and other place-based programmes.

‘Economic renewal in the shadow of a pandemic’ is explicitly offered as a place-based recovery provocation and ‘starter for ten’. Universities can provide the intellectual capabilities and perhaps the ‘neutral spaces’ and convening roles for local leadership teams, business and civil society to translate and add value to building consensus around the priorities for their cities, towns and communities. However, the narrative above requires addressing some difficult issues if universities as a sector are going to become genuinely and strategically place-informed.

First, many cities and towns have multiple universities and even more centres of higher education, research, development and innovation provision and expertise. In this context, the definition of ‘civic-ness’ needs to be determined not by individual universities – but by the places themselves with an ‘association’ of universities. This is particularly important in region and city-region scales of geographies like the Combined Authority Metro-Mayors in England.

Second, there is the issue of cold spots. It is highly relevant that of the 101 Town Deal invitees only 13 had any local university at all and only one (Loughborough) had an unequivocal top-ten institution. At its simplest, if universities are key anchors of successful players, how does one deliver outcomes akin to having a university in a town without one?

Perhaps, however, there is an even more nuanced perspective and argument for reconnecting universities with their places. Much of the Budget and plan for growth was explicitly in praise of UK’s ‘globally-excellent’ universities – part of ‘Global Britain’s’ technological and knowledge exchange response to Covid-19 and to previous globalisation assumptions.

It does not take a PhD to visualise what specific university models Government has in mind when they present this perspective. Not only does it grossly misrepresent the rich diversity of the UK university sector, but it also presents a development trajectory which will not be credible for the vast majority of places for which levelling up might be prescribed.

This stimulates at least two questions for the sector to think about. Much of what Government considers ‘global excellence’ in the university sector is not in the highest priority places for levelling up. For instance, how can and should ‘golden triangle’ universities play in these policy agendas? Second, the plan for growth places the emphasis for post-16 education and skills on fundamental reform of FE. How should and can universities engage in these agendas?

Civic universities of the 2010s always struggled with reconciling global excellence and local relevance. If anything, the current context has made this even more challenging. Notwithstanding some ‘nice words’, the Budget and plan for growth has not yet shifted this tension to the new landscape of the 2020s. Nor does it propose an increase in the place-based incentives (e.g Research Excellence Framework, Teaching Excellence Framework, Knowledge Exchange Framework reforms) for universities to prioritise this strategically as opposed to an instrumental dash for cheap government cash.

The suggestions in the local economic renewal paper may help inform the locally differentiated conversations about university contributions to local economic renewal, but it remains largely reliant on the extent to which individual universities wish to become new post-pandemic, post-Brexit, place-informed institutions.

David Marlow is CEO of Third Life Economics. David’s full paper for the IED Local Economic Renewal workstream is available here.