|26th April 2023||Joel Arber|
Universities are strange beasts. Not part of the public sector, nor fully commercial in outlook, they operate in the shadowy hinterland between these two spheres. This is a confusing space to be in. It’s not one that the majority of staff find comfortable. Many of them went into the Higher Education sector with purist, altruistic motivations in mind.
Universities exist to do good. These are values-driven organisations, built on communities of staff and students who buy into this ethos. Education, research and knowledge exchange are all means by which to do good, to improve the lives of individuals and make a positive societal and economic impact. This is particularly true when we consider the role of universities within their place – their civic mission within their town, city or region.
While the potential for universities to ‘give’ is vast, there is something more of a symbiotic relationship between an HE institution and its place. As Lord Kerslake comments in his introduction to the Civic University Commission, the civic role of universities “is vital to securing a successful future for our cities, towns and communities”, but “they also need the active support of their communities in these turbulent and challenging times”.
It’s more straightforward to see how, at a macro level, universities benefit their places. Many have invested in commissioning economic impact studies in recent years to demonstrate the financial impact they have on their local economies. Going forward, we are likely to see this shift towards social impact studies. For the universities themselves, they need the support of their communities to get things done. It just makes life easier to be a good neighbour: this helps grease the wheels of planning applications, makes for better media relations, opens doors to business engagement and, particularly in these challenging economic times, helps drive local student recruitment.
For the universities themselves, they need the support of their communities to get things done. It just makes life easier to be a good neighbour: this helps grease the wheels of planning applications, makes for better media relations, opens doors to business engagement and, particularly in these challenging economic times, helps drive local student recruitment.
These are all helpful benefits to an institution, but are they what you are trying to achieve from your civic engagement? Being clear about purpose is central to success – otherwise benefits (or deficits) are just a bi-product of uncoordinated activity.
It is possible – realistic, even – that a university can undertake civic engagement both altruistically, for the benefit of its wider stakeholders, as well as self-interestedly with clear objectives to benefit the institution and/or its internal interest groups, as illustrated in the diagram.
Drivers and positions in external engagement
Staff across your institution carry out civic engagement activity day-in, day-out – much of this organic. It’s normal and healthy and not something you should seek to curtail. However, providing a strategic framework, along with measurement parameters can help to optimise the effectiveness of the effort – and turn partnerships into outcomes, as my colleague Alex Favier recently wrote.
Overcoming the obstacle course
The breadth and complexity of civic engagement makes it a difficult area for institutions to do really well.
So where do you start? A good place to begin is some honest reflection on where your institution currently is in its civic mission. The Civic University Commission outlines four parameters: Place, Public, Partnerships, and perhaps most importantly, Measuring Impact. It urges us to ask fundamental questions of ourselves: How well are your teaching programmes aligned with current and future labour market demands? Are the views of local people embedded into formal governance structures and communications strategies? How well do you work with your city and region’s other anchor institutions? And so on.
You should also try and get a handle on the breadth and depth of your current civic activity – covering both central, strategic projects and more organic, local work. What civic engagement activities are your staff engaged in? With whom? Are they clear about ‘why’ they are doing it? Are they able to measure the impact?
Being clear about your civic vision and objectives – providing a framework, as referenced above, with a scope covering cultural, social and economic impact – is fundamental. This is because your civic mission needs to be integral to your institutional strategy. Your research, teaching and learning, knowledge exchange and facilities all have a role to play, built on the knowledge and skills of your staff and students. Civic engagement shouldn’t be seen as an add-on – something that’s ‘nice to have’.
Elevating civic engagement to be part of your university strategy provides a platform to resource it appropriately. If it is important to you, treat it as you do other priorities. Find space for it in your workload models. Integrate it into staff appraisals. Give it parity of esteem in your promotion criteria. Allocate specific budgets to fund civic activities. These are the levers that civic engagement coordinators need to deliver your civic mission. You cannot expect to deliver strategic goals by relying on good will alone.
Success in your civic mission will be built on deep-rooted, two-way engagement. Listening to your wider landscape of stakeholders, appreciating their needs and desires, understanding their perceptions of your institution is essential – and not just as a one-off baselining exercise, but on an ongoing basis. This listening should be balanced with sharing information about what your institution is doing and how it will affect them. Regular, planned, segmented, personalised comms will underpin your efforts and help amplify the impact of the work you’re doing.
Civic engagement is complex. It takes time, effort and patience to do well. It may even require compromise as it’s not your agenda alone, but one shared with your stakeholder network. But for institutions with strategic clarity, strong leadership in this space and the operational alacrity to overcome the obstacles, there are rewards for the taking. Get it right and there’s massive potential to benefit your institution as well as its external communities.
If you’d like to know more about SUMS Strategy, Planning and Transformation Portfolios Service, more information is available here.