Blog post

What does it mean to be a modern civic university?

Universities are becoming ever more integrated with their communities. Kelly Tyler, of our Corporate Communications team, examines whether our seats of learning have a real sense of civic responsibility.

By The Corporate Communications Team - 17 December 2018

Can people talk about the university in their city with pride and awareness?

If so, it is almost certainly civic.

This is the view of the UPP Foundation Civic University Commission – a major new independent inquiry into the future of the civic university, set up to determine how universities can successfully serve their place in the 21st century.

According to research by the Commission, which polled local people in 10 cities across the UK, 58% of people said they were proud of their local universities, with just 7% saying they were not. A further 28% said they were indifferent to their home universities.

Yet despite universities being “a prized national asset, with a well-deserved global reputation, [which] contribute to our society through education, by creating opportunity, through their research, and through the vital civic role they play in communities around the country” – in the words of Universities Minister Sam Gyimah – an average of 35% of people are unable to name a single thing that their local university has done to engage the local community.

A local focus

What exactly is a civic university and how easy is the role to define?

The ‘civic’ institution is not a new phenomenon – in fact it dates back to the Victorian period when the first civic universities were introduced. Owens College Manchester and Queen’s College Birmingham were ‘pioneering provincial colleges’, founded by local philanthropists, not the state. In Manchester in 1880, a second version of Owens College became a fully chartered university in its own right, with a rapid expansion in civic universities following in the late 1880s and early 1900s.

Fast forward to the modern day, and the civic university still very much exists.

“A civic university must be truly local,” the UPP Foundation Civic University Commission states in its October 2018 Progress Report, which sets out to understand what a modern civic university is and what it should do.

“While there are a number of different types of universities, the one thing that connects them all is that they are rooted in a city or town, and the role they play there is key to its civic role,” says Richard Brabner, Director of the UPP Foundation.

“A civic university must be willing to accept that there are some people it prioritises – namely those who grow up, live and work in the area. A civic university should be active in shaping and leading the decisions that affect the people in the locality.”

However, one of the challenges for universities is ensuring they promote both the local and global impact they have on society, says Richard.

“There is a hierarchy between local and global prestige in universities,” he adds. “While universities are keen to talk about their global role, they should also prioritise communicating the positive impact they have on their towns, cities and regions.

“We have found there to be quite a reluctance from some universities to tell the story they play in their communities, which could be related.”

A long-term commitment

Professor John Goddard OBE, Deputy Chair of the UPP Foundation Civic University Commission and Emeritus Professor at Newcastle University, said another challenge for universities in being civic institutions was in developing quality, mutually beneficial partnerships.

“If you’re going to work with civil society, you need long-term, trust-based relationships, and they are difficult to build, especially under many of the project funding mechanisms that are around. Universities may receive a grant from one research council or business and it’s very quick – in and out.

“A lot of this development, and that with the community, relies on long-term commitments; it doesn’t happen overnight.”

The key to ensuring civic activity is co-ordinated and impactful is through adopting a clear strategy – a key recommendation from the UPP Foundation Civic University Commission’s Progress Report.

“Every university is able to list a menu of what would be considered civic activities, which they conduct in their towns and cities, whether that be supporting local museums, student volunteering programmes, development of culture and arts, access to university facilities such as sports centres for local people, or whether it’s more rooted into the core of the university in terms of its research and teaching,” says Richard.

“But to be truly civic, universities need to have a clear strategy that is informed by close partner engagement and an objective analysis of local needs.

“For universities, another big challenge is what to prioritise within their community. Universities are not local authorities or public sector organisations, so there are some challenging strategic questions for all universities to ask about what and who they support.”

If civic universities have been in existence for centuries and many are already conducting civic activities, why is so much attention being paid to it in society today?

“There has been a re-emergence for many institutions in making their civic responsibility a priority,” says Richard.

“The narrative around higher education over the past two years has been relatively negative and, in some cases, hostile around certain issues, including tuition fees, the value of going to university, vice-chancellors’ salaries, student mental health and so on.”

A serious responsibility

John, who is also author of The Civic University: the Policy and Leadership Challenges, agrees, adding that the university sector is “under heavy political pressure”.

“Unless universities take their civic responsibilities seriously and not only tell the stories of what work they are doing, but build on this and strengthen their civic relationships, we are going to find a loss of political support,” he adds.

“The critical issue with politics is that it is place-based – members of parliament represent places, so universities need to be fully supporting their local communities and economies.”

Currently there is no recognised metric to measure a university’s civic impact, and this is of concern to the higher education sector.

“The metrics of this are extremely problematic,” adds John.

“The only way you can do it, in my view, is by a process of self-evaluation – assessing whether the strategy you have implemented is working. There have been various attempts to do this at an international level, and in many Nordic countries there is a statutory legal responsibility for universities to be civic. However, in the UK there is no overarching body responsible for civic engagement, teaching and research, so there’s a major obstacle.”

Adding metrics would be a complicated process, says Richard, who admits there is no one right method to measuring a university’s civic impact.

“There could be measurements added to national schemes such as the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) and Knowledge Excellence Framework (KEF) to demonstrate civic impact. However, universities would then just do what the metrics are telling them to. A civic role has to take a local-needs approach to what you are doing, which contradicts national incentives and measurement.”

John said universities should map their activity against the Quadruple Helix Model – an approach for tackling grand societal challenges by bringing together university, business, government and civil society – as a way of monitoring its civic work.

“What is now emerging in the world of social innovation is thinking about citizens not just as consumers, but as co-producers of knowledge,” he says.

“The whole notion of the university as a facilitator of developing quadruple helix local partnerships to address societal challenges, such as ageing, is incredibly important. They are global challenges but they are also place-based challenges.”

A civic role in regional prosperity

The University of Derby recognises that the role it has to play in the long-term prosperity of the region, and communities within it, is very much a civic one.

Professor Kathryn Mitchell, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Derby, said: “The University is a significant heartbeat in our city, and our region, and we take seriously the responsibility we have to drive the economic, social, cultural, educational and environmental prosperity of our home.

“Working with others, and with the full commitment of staff and students, we continue to focus on raising aspirations and improving the education, skills, health and wellbeing of current and future generations across our region. In my role as Chair of the Opportunity

Area, our city is taking great strides to improve outcomes for young people and so I am very proud, as the Vice-Chancellor, that the University takes on the role which enriches our connectivity within the region, and relish the civic responsibilities it brings.”

One area of the University which is already making a real positive impact is the work of the Equality and Social Mobility Unit, Widening Access, and Schools and Colleges Liaison teams. To help address the issue of social mobility, and break down the barriers that prevent young people from accessing higher education, the teams work closely with local schools and colleges, and last academic year engaged with over 35,000 students through the delivery of 700 events.

“Being a civic university is about being a good neighbour, but it’s also much more than that. We are the fabric of our city – not just economically but culturally and socially,” says Krisha Bainham, Head of the Widening Access Unit at the University of Derby.

“For many of our students, they are the first of their families to go to university and for many people coming to events at the University is the first time they have ever set foot on a university campus.

“Universities are inherently collaborative and share knowledge. We need to look at how we can take these skills and work with each other to address some of society’s biggest challenges, ensuring we all fully embrace our civic responsibility.”

For further information contact the Corporate Communications team at or call 01332 593953.

About the author

The Corporate Communications Team
University Press and PR

The Corporate Communications Team manage the University's Press and PR, putting forward academics, support staff and student representatives for 'expert comment' on different topics to local and national broadcast media. The team is highly experienced in communications and journalism - locally, regionally and nationally - as well as in-house and agency public relations.