It’s now or never for universities to be civic


Just 12 months ago the idea of universities supporting their local communities – “being civic” – seemed eminently sensible. It is now critical.

In February 2019, Sheffield Hallam University – like many other institutions – signed up to putting in place a Civic University Agreement, a pledge that committed us to prioritise the economy and quality of life in our city and region. This challenge, laid down by the UPP Foundation Civic University Commission, called on universities to reshape their role and responsibilities to support their local communities.

One of the strengths of the Civic University Commission’s recommendations lies in the determination to put community at the heart of everyday practice. Creating a Civic University Agreement provides an opportunity for fundamental rethinking of how universities contribute to place, so that civic engagement can become hardwired into the fabric of institutional culture. Like many in the sector, we embraced this opportunity to demonstrate the transformative impact that we are already having within the Sheffield city region. But also to ask ourselves: “what more can we do?”

This sense of place is central to our strategic projects and partnerships. We lead the ground-breaking South Yorkshire Futures programme, which aims to improve attainment and aspiration levels of all young people in our region, whether or not they progress into higher education. We deliver significant regeneration projects, including the world-leading Advanced Wellbeing Research Centre established in one of city region’s most deprived areas. And through our teaching, we train thousands of the nurses and teachers who power the region’s public sector and are now more important than ever.

At Hallam, we felt that we had much to offer as a potential host of the Civic University Network, and we are delighted to have led the successful bid, and to be working with a strong network of partners.

The principle of partnership will run through the network’s constitution, from governance and structure to support and delivery – aligned with that of UPP Foundation and partner funders Department for Education, Carnegie Trust UK and the Arts Council England. The vision will be delivered with the National Co-ordinating Centre for Public Engagement and The Institute of Community Studies, and supported by our core network partners in the University of Glasgow, University of Newcastle, Queen Mary University of London, and the University of Birmingham.

The network’s partnership approach aims to embed civic aspirations within institutional cultures and conversations, as well as to ensure that universities are increasingly recognised as a critical resource, working with government and strategic partners, to deliver effective and positive social and economic change. Through sector, system and institutional leadership, the network can help make the civic mission central to the higher education sector.

While commitment to the network is strong, the speed and scale of the impact of the coronavirus pandemic could easily knock us off course, as we concentrate on the very real challenges that our students and our institutions are facing. These challenges will not go away quickly, but we would be short-sighted to see this as a reason to push the civic agenda down our list of priorities.

In reality, there will be an even more critical role at a local level for organisations with capability and capacity, availability of practical resources, and skilled staff and leadership. In so many of our towns and cities, universities are among the organisations best placed to  step up and lead, both as we respond to this current phase of the pandemic, but also as we think about recovery and rebuilding.

There are already many examples across the sector of how colleagues and partners are “being civic”. Here in Sheffield, these range from simple actions such as making free parking available for NHS staff, while also supporting the local NHS trust with testing capacity and technology. Not to mention the healthcare professionals we are teaching who are using their newly acquired skills on the frontline right now – a vital resource in the city and the region; and there are similar stories from across the country – bringing the concept of civic-mindedness to life and at rapid pace.

The coronavirus crisis provides the Civic University Network with a challenge that impacts every one of our institutions and localities, and can only reinforce the need to think radically and differently about how we can best serve our local communities.

Ultimately, many of our institutions will be remembered for how we act in protecting, supporting and rebuilding our communities during and after the coronavirus epidemic. It really is now or never for universities to be truly civic.

Author Bio: Richard Calvert is Deputy Vice-Chancellor of Sheffield Hallam University.