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Beyond Learning

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By Nicola Fairbairn


Published 21 November 2022


Nicky Fairbairn, a Real Estate Partner and member of the Education team at international law firm DAC Beachcroft and Scott Corfe, a Director at Public First, discuss the role higher education colleges and universities will play in shaping the future of our town and city centres and driving positive social change.

Colleges and universities are playing and will continue to play a key role in the economic health of the communities in which they are based; not just in the immediate town or city, but throughout the surrounding region. Education is of course core, but the impact of a successful institution goes beyond learning. Working closely together with local councils, ambitious colleges and universities are integral to urban regeneration and to attracting new investment, new academic research, new homes and new facilities.

Universities and colleges are often amongst the largest employers in their region, with 19 of them directly employing more than 5,000 people. In some places, higher education institutions are truly major local employers. There are ten UK universities that account for at least one in every 20 jobs in the local authority areas in which they are based.

Higher education institutions also support employment elsewhere in local communities. This includes jobs created along their extensive supply chains (“indirect” economic effects) and from the spending of university staff and students generating jobs within communities (so-called “induced” economic effects).

With this in mind, Public First has worked with a number of higher education institutions to help them better understand their economic footprint. 

Beyond jobs and the hard economics of gdp, universities are also central to supporting urban regeneration through their cultural impact – for example with the provision of museums, art galleries, gardens and concert halls that are open to the wider public. The new buildings they are developing are critical to wider place-making considerations in local plans. Universities are also taking multiple steps to increase their social impact, such as through charitable activities, mentoring of local school pupils and adult skills development. All these activities generate closer collaboration between local authorities, education establishments and local employers, strengthening connections and collaboration across the groups.

Universities should be proud of their wide-ranging impacts, but there is scope to go further. As the UPP Foundation – a charity that offers grants to universities, charities and other higher education bodies – notes, while many universities have an impressive range of civic engagement activities, few can claim to be strategically civic institutions. Further, the pressure to grow student numbers and compete on the international stage means that some universities have seen a weakening in their connection to the local community in which they operate.

The 2018 UPP Foundation Civic University Commission challenged universities to re-shape their role and responsibility to their communities and to more fully realise their potential to be well-embedded in and enhancing the places in which they are based. With the aim of furthering this agenda, the Civic University Network was established in 2020, with leadership provided by Sheffield Hallam University.

Chaired by Lord Kerslake, the Commission brought together eminent people from across Higher Education to understand how government and universities could recapture the civic activity that drove many universities when they were founded. Public First designed, researched, and wrote the Commission Report, ran evidence sessions across the country and conducted polling and focus groups to understand local perceptions of universities.

A key recommendation of the UPP Commission was that universities should embark on creating Civic University Agreements – a civic strategy, informed by an analysis of local needs and opportunities, and co-created with local partners. So far nearly 60 higher education leaders have committed to preparing such agreements.

Where do we go from here? Arguably, post-pandemic there is an even greater need for universities to be civically-minded, playing a key role in supporting local communities. Towns and cities face huge challenges going forward, with the rise of remote working and online shopping requiring a dramatic rethink of land and building use in urban areas. There is scope for higher education institutions, in partnership with local authorities, to fill this void, with an expanded educational and cultural offering in our towns and cities. There is also scope for more and better co-operation between universities and colleges in their local communities.

The 2020s could be a period in which universities become increasingly engaged with the businesses and people that surround them – a decade in which civically-minded institutions play a leading role in shaping the future of town and city centres, enriching local culture and providing the upskilling of the population needed to keep Britain’s economy competitive.