Civic Universities and Inclusive Local Economic Recovery: How Can Universities Do Even More to Support Regions in Crisis?

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On the 30th September, City-REDI / WM REDI and the Civic University Network held an event called “Civic Universities and Inclusive Local Economic Recovery“.

The event began with a discussion between Lord Robert Kerslake (Chair of the Civic University Commission) Lord David Willetts (President – Resolution Foundation) and Sarah Davidson (CEO – Carnegie UK Trust).

In this blog, Professor Simon Collinson and Dr Abigail Taylor outline the importance of what was discussed at the webinar. 

Following the launch of The Civic University Network (CUN) earlier this year, led by the Sheffield Hallam University hub, our webinar sought to promote debate on how universities can most effectively contribute to local communities and promote positive societal change in their local regions. The timing was influenced by the role that universities are currently playing in helping their communities respond to the current Covid19 pandemic.

Our direct experience, and that of other civic universities working in partnership with local stakeholders, strongly suggests that some of the most effective, coordinated and confident responses to shocks such as the pandemic are those rooted in previously established partnerships between universities and local organisations. The current challenges are revealing that where a history of civic collaborations exists, with agreed priorities and strong complementarities, these form the basis for a quick, collective response to a crisis. These are the foundations of economic, societal and community resilience. But there are also many examples of gaps, where stronger collaboration would enhance the civic role of universities and provide more support for local communities.

This was a central theme for our event; to better understand and share, across different regions, insights into what makes for a strong civic university partnership. Several key themes emerged from the presentations, discussion and the audience questions.

Universities play an important role as anchor institutions but there is a need to focus more on local skills needs, inclusive growth, levelling up and left-behind places.

These issues were clear before COVID but the pandemic “has accelerated the importance of these agendas and increased the need for them to be very effective in the years ahead, in what we now see as the recovery” (Lord Kerslake).

Some changes may be required in how universities approach and carry out their civic role. For example,  moving away from a competitive mentality vis-à-vis other local universities and collaborating more with community groups.

Such collaborations should also involve a range of partners including stakeholders that universities have not previously engaged with to a high degree. It is important not to separate communities and the voluntary sector from representatives of business and the local community. They are all part of local ecosystems. Universities have an important overarching role to play as convening actors,  making good use of their strategic assets as economic actors, as significant contributors to e.g. the health and arts ecosystems in their localities and of course as knowledge institutions.

Coordinated action to support local skills development would benefit from partnerships between FE and HE as part of a joined-up civic agenda. These are growing in the form of an agreed ‘division-of-labour’ and connected learning pathways to match the supply of skills to local demand and need further support.

But many of these revisions or extensions to the civic role of universities also require changes in the ways in which HE institutions are incentivised and regulated. Giving his personal view, David Willetts argued that “we need other ways of measuring the contribution universities make including on research”. The long-standing contradiction between how research performance and the research contribution of universities is measured in relation to the needs of local places, for example, should be addressed.

This would help overcome the long-standing disconnect between some university-based research and practitioners. Knowledge translation, the application of intellectual capital to local economic and social challenges, in partnership with research users, should be directly supported, rather than being an incidental spill-over.

We can’t afford to allow innovative academic thinking about technology, transport, energy, health, work etc.  to get stuck in the university but nor can we afford to allow this research to be conducted in a bubble separate from the multiple useful perspectives that could be brought to bear in the triple helix framework”. Places “need knowledge institutions who can help solve old and new problems in innovative ways, understanding how ideas translate into practice in real lives and in real places” (Sarah Davidson)

This points to the importance of co-creating research with communities (third, public and private sectors, local communities), that is, the need for research with, rather than on users/communities. This does raise additional challenges around engagement with citizens and enabling bottom-up initiatives, rather than expert-led ‘supply-driven’ solutions. But there are real benefits in making the effort to advance this, given the capacity and capability of our universities to bring world-leading expertise and knowledge from around the world to bear on local problems.

Universities can be both a facilitator at the local level, but also a source of expertise and knowledge that can be drawn in from elsewhere. Part of their role is to curate as well as exchange knowledge from both internal and external academic sources and where appropriate to mobilise knowledge for social gain” (Des McNulty).

The importance of place in relation to the role of universities in regional economic development.

Place matters, location is important and UK regions vary in terms of their current challenges and future growth potential. These varied characteristics need to be understood and appreciated.  Locally-embedded universities have strong advantages through their connections in terms of analysing and understanding local strengths, weaknesses and potentialities, identifying where effective interventions are needed, and coordinating local action. Many regions lack capacity and/or capability within local government and the wider public sector and this weakens their ability to produce the evidence required to develop local industrial strategies or effectively lobby central government for devolved resources to intervene locally.

By directly supporting the development of data analysis, the effective use of evidence and intelligence about regions, in these regions, universities can support more precise, better targeted and more effective policy interventions for inclusive economic growth. This approach applies to universities own, direct impacts on their host regions. Through well-directed education programmes, employment and procurement practices as well as targeted knowledge exchange, technology commercialisation, start-up and entrepreneurship initiatives and business support programmes, universities can better-align their assets, capabilities and projects with local economic growth needs and opportunities. But local data and evidence can also help other local policy and community organisations improve the precision with which they identify and cope with key challenges.

Because shocks, like the Covid-19 pandemic, impact different places in different ways, a more detailed understanding about a region’s structure, strengths and weaknesses can also support a more resilient, locally-appropriate response to mitigate against major risks.

This also requires a more holistic approach to understanding and supporting regions, extending beyond the economic to encompass cultural, social, and health and well-being dimensions of local populations.

If there’s anything that we’ve learned or been reminded of in the past few months, it’s that our health or well-being and our economy are intimately bound up with each other. It’s really impossible to separate one from the other when looking at both the direct and indirect effects of the virus. But when you start with an intention to be relevant to a place, then the holistic and interlinked nature of economic and social policy teams becomes clear very quickly” (Sarah Davidson).

Universities have a strong role to play as anchor institutions in terms of providing direct local employment, spin-outs and spill-overs… “the number of people who are employed, the procurement part of the universities, the spin that comes from the universities, the knock-on impact of footfall on dependent businesses who are around our universities cannot be underestimated” (Kevin Rush). More broadly, David Willets emphasised the importance of universities engaging locally with health service partners to relieve pressure points in testing capacity. “The more that universities can work with the health service and local councils on Covid measures for their students, the better

The case studies of experiences in Glasgow, the North East and the West Midlands enabled attendees to hear first-hand how new forms of collaboration with local stakeholders is underpinning local economic recovery.

  • Clinical and life sciences, staff, students and equipment have been mobilised to develop testing and diagnostic capacity in collaboration with NHS in Glasgow.
  • Strong collaboration in the North East case study is helping the area to prepare for future societal and economic changes. The National Innovation Centre for Ageing and climate investments support efforts to build new markets for age-ready services and climate change.
  • In the West Midlands, WMREDI (funded by Research England) supports evidence-based policymaking and evaluation, providing intelligence including an annual State of the Region Report and Weekly Economic Impact Monitors, reflecting on risks and challenges posed by the pandemic.

There are challenges for universities and regions that seek to engage and collaborate more productively with each other.

City-regions, and regions more generally, vary considerably in terms of the institutions and governance structures. A ‘Rubik’s Cube’ of devolved governments, combined authorities, LEPs, local authorities and city councils make it difficult for many universities to navigate their way to create sustained and productive partnerships. This can also mean a lack of consensus regarding collective, shared priorities, resulting in a weaker, less focused civic contribution from universities.

Working on the cultural dynamics and developing effective leadership, to help ‘shape the place universities work in with their local partners is important’. A key task is to “pinpoint” major policy problems for regional stakeholders, to provide a constructive challenge, ‘manage a range of voices’ and then follow through in the policymaking process’ (Jonathan Skinner).

The practical reality of building a collaboration between a group of universities under a combined authority takes work and effort and relationship building” (Henry Kippin). Navigating “multiple stakeholders who are not coterminous” can be particularly problematic (Kevin Rush).

An interesting question to ask is, ‘who takes decisions for place? Some regions have clear, identifiable governance structures that help with the navigation challenge. Des McNulty and Kevin Rush clearly demonstrated how Glasgow benefits from an Economic Recovery Group with strong university representation. The University of Glasgow supports the Social Recovery Task Force the City Council has set up by establishing an Academic Advisory Group that translates research and curates expertise on the impact of the pandemic on protected groups and disadvantaged communities and the best first moves in responding.

The North East is seeking to move from “transactional relationships […] to a much more joined-up and strategic approach to how we can work collaboratively, whether that be about understanding our place through data and insight and developing a more evidence-based policymaking approach or thinking about some of the opportunities that we have around new markets around climate and an ageing population and seeing that as potentially the assets that we have within our universities and with our partners in health and in local government as well as business” (Jane Robinson).

The role of universities is complicated by government department’s placing different levels of emphasis on place. John Goddard stressed the complications posed by different government departments engaging with place to differing levels, challenging the civic universities movement to support levelling up by “working together at the bottom up” thereby bringing different parts of government together around a place agenda.

There are also important questions about how we should support towns and rural areas outside cities or distant from large universities. “What happens when a place doesn’t have an institution? What happens if they’re in a rural area where you when you’re far from an institution? I think there was a real problem with this leadership role within place and how universities can help not just the place they might be but places beyond because they have the skills and capacity to do that”? (Rebecca Riley). Some universities are extending their reach to these places, but many do not have the resources for this type of expanded civic role. Jane Robinson emphasised how Newcastle University are seeking to support more rural and coastal locations through collaboration aimed at developing SME productivity, digital connection and post-Brexit models of agri & energy.

Not unrelated, there is an uneven distribution of the big civic universities, leaving many regions with much smaller, less well-resourced universities. In other regions there may be a significant mismatch between large universities and small local authorities, creating unbalanced partnerships.

What can we do to help more now?

Some of the recommendations coming out of our discussions include:

  • Central government and local stakeholders should recognise and leverage the many advantages that strong civic universities can bring to their host regions, including:
    • attracting talent and retaining much-needed skills
    • investment in research facilities, cultural assets, sports facilities, community amenities, education programs etc. which add value to the region, not just the university
    • knowledge from elsewhere and links with other places in the UK and internationally
    • a set of tools and approaches that come from different disciplines, to support collective analysis and action. This is not new but it is more important than ever.
    • a power to convene, in a politically neutral and evidence-based way, constructive debate leading towards consensus over shared priorities


  • We should outline a set of collective and individual strategic aims in relation to what universities want to achieve as a place investor, a skills developer, an attractor of research funding and a deliverer of research. This is essential to establish where and how universities can contribute in local ecosystems. This might take the form of setting local targets for the next two to three years which universities can help to shape and deliver.
  • Identify and share some better practices, including what has worked well in the immediate recovery response and how that success can be captured and built upon in specific regional contexts.
  • Develop incentives and mechanisms to focus collective efforts on inclusive growth and support for lower-income groups, as central and potentially still a gap for civic university contributions.

This blog was written by:

Our thanks to John Goddard and Des McNulty for their helpful input and reviews.

The webinar speakers were:

Lord Robert Kerslake (Civic University Commission and Sheffield Hallam University), Lord David Willetts (Resolution Foundation), Sarah Davidson (Carnegie UK Trust), Professor John Goddard (University of Birmingham), Rebecca Riley (University of Birmingham), and Jonathan Skinner (West Midlands Combined Authority), Professor Jane Robinson (Newcastle University), Henry Kippin (North of Tyne Combined Authority ), Professor Des McNulty (Glasgow University) and Kevin Rush (Glasgow City Council).

For further details, including a briefing paper, presentation slides, and other outputs from this event, see here:

Funding for WMREDI from UKRI Research England is gratefully acknowledged.


This blog was written by:

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