place public policy universities

The heart of impact

A year of war on the eastern borders of Europe. A cost of living crisis. Here in the UK, public services on their knees after a decade of dismantling. So why talk about universities, and the role they can play in their communities?

The short answer is because they are there, and they last. They outlast wars, governments, policies, economic cycles and demographic changes. They can, and do, cast long shadows, centuries long in some cases.

More than 100 years ago this was recognised the founders of the ‘redbrick’ universities in the UK, and before that, the land-grant institutions set up under the Morrill Act of 1852 in the United States. There were farsighted people then who could see the difference an academic institution could make in its locality.

In recent years there has been renewed interest in the role of universities as ‘anchor institutions’, organisations that could work for the long-term benefit of their places. The relative stability of universities and healthcare bodies contrasts with the more fickle approach adopted by large corporations, whose loyalty (as we have seen with Apple and Amazon) relates more to lucre than locale.

The UK has been slower on the uptake, but thanks to the work of pioneers such as John Goddard, the notion of universities’ civic impact is now firmly on the agenda. Too often, though, it’s understood predominantly in terms of added economic value, high-paying jobs and spin-out companies from scientific research. 

In the last couple of years I’ve worked with colleagues at Sheffield Hallam University and beyond to help advance a broader vision. Working with the Civic University Network we drafted a civic impact framework that encouraged institutions to assess their impact across seven domains of activity, including environment and climate, social inequalities, and arts and culture. 

We’ve taken those arguments forward in a new book published this month by Palgrave Macmillan – Reframing the Civic University – with contributors ranging from a councillor in East London to a university vice-chancellor. We invited co-authors who would enlarge, enrich and interrogate our own thinking about the role of higher education institutions within their communities. 

‘Civic’ work can too often be little more than tokenistic posturing. So we encouraged our authors to take different perspectives and explore the difficulties of civic work alongside the achievements. They didn’t let us down. Whether they were describing the experiences of hard-pressed communities in Stoke-on-Trent or challenging the carbon impact of academic networking, they provided food for thought and ideas to adopt and adapt.

Between them they also questioned that ubiquitous term, ‘impact’ – the academic shorthand for the difference we are making. Too often it carries connotations of elitism, universities doing their work for (or even to) communities rather than with them. And too often it’s a one-way process, emanating from the institution towards the outside world. 

In encouraging universities to be braver and bolder in standing up for their places, we hope in this book to begin to redress the balance, presenting civic work as for everyone rather than just a set of elite partners, and as something that begins with self-reflection. Universities may have the greatest impact by changing themselves. With a fair wind, this book might play a small part in that.

By Julian Dobson

@juliandobson on Twitter, writer and editor on anything to do with place and society. Researcher at Sheffield Hallam University. Occasional academic and creative writing too.

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