How can universities be civic-minded?

A host of universities now claim to be ‘civic’. But what does that really mean, and how can we tell? 

Over the past year, I have been part of a team at Sheffield Hallam University working to answer these questions. We have been exploring the idea of a ‘civic index’, following on from the Civic University Commission’s 2019 report and working with the Civic University Network set up in its wake. 

Our headline finding is that what we’ve come up is much more than an index. Indeed we’ve stopped calling it one. 

Our discussions showed that universities don’t want another league table. Rather, they want a tool to help them assess, review and improve their practices. So instead of an index, we developed a prototype framework for civic impact. We are eager for feedback and opportunities to test the framework with institutions across the UK. An initial forum for discussion took place this week at the inaugural Civic University Network conference

There is a rich variety of university engagement with place, much of it stretching back hundreds of years. More recently, assessing civic activity has become a crowded field. 

It is partly covered by the Knowledge Exchange Framework, although this focuses on economic indicators. There is also the Edge tool for assessing public engagement, developed by the National Centre for Public Participation in Education, the European Tefce project on community engagement in higher education, and the Climate Action Toolkit created by the Climate Commission for Higher and Further Education Students and Leaders. 

None of these, though, gives a full account of the civic. Civic activity should be viewed through the lens of place, focusing on how universities operate in their places and what they do for their places. 

This requires universities to identify what places they are concerned with and who in these places they need to work with. It also requires an approach that is not boxed in by narrow definitions of economic prosperity. 

To challenge universities to think broadly about places and work better in them, we identified seven domains of civic activity. These are: culture, economy, environment, facilities, leadership, social and wellbeing. A university that is not engaged with all of these should probably not claim to be civic. 

Some of these domains will be relatively familiar. Leadership, dealing with strategy and planning, is obviously integral to civic activity. Economic impact has been central to the idea of the civic university in the UK and the anchor institution in the United States. Social impact, especially in relation to social inequalities, has featured strongly in discussions of civicness.

The other four domains have received less attention. The neglect of the environmental dimension is particularly strange, considering universities’ environmental impacts, their research on the climate and biodiversity crisis, and their power to shape the views and behaviours of young people. 

Covid-19 has highlighted universities’ importance to health and wellbeing: they train the healthcare workforce and they can inform the development of healthy places. They also affect the health and wellbeing of their staff and students, and by extension the wider community. 

Cultural activities and university facilities, both physical and digital, are often considered in relation to universities’ external engagement. They should also be central to notions of civic impact. 

Having identified the domains, we needed to consider indicators of success or impact. Some in our discussions argued for clear, quantitative metrics. We decided against this for two reasons: first, because they can be reductive, attempting to boil complexity down to a single killer question; and second, because they encourage target-hitting rather than reflection. 

So within each domain we instead pose a series of questions that encourage universities to develop locally appropriate indicators, agreed with their partners. These questions and some suggestions of relevant indicators are set out in detail within the framework. For example, within the social domain, we ask whether a university and its partners have a shared vision for a flourishing society, and how it will make life better for individuals and groups who are disadvantaged. A suggested indicator would be that the university can show the actions it is taking to welcome the insights of excluded and marginalised groups.

A framework for self-assessment and peer review: domains of impact and stages of progress

The framework also addresses assessment. We set out a six-stage cyclical process (shown in the graphic above): mapping (where are we now?); partnering (who should we work with?); agreeing (what are we going to do?); resourcing (how will we pay for it?); evaluating (what’s working?); and learning (what should we change?). 

At the conference, we discussed some of the many ways civic impacts can be framed and evaluated. As well as explaining how the framework complements and enhances universities’ core business of teaching and research, we encouraged colleagues to use the tool to ask themselves, ‘how truly civic are we?’ This question can’t be reduced to a set of metrics. But more than ever it needs to inform universities’ thinking.

• An earlier version of this article first appeared on the Research Professional website (available to subscribers). For more information on the Civic University Network, click here.

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