RECONNECTING AND RE–PURPOSING THE CIVIC PURPOSE OF UNIVERSITIES

RECONNECTING AND RE–PURPOSING THE CIVIC PURPOSE OF UNIVERSITIES

Mary Stuart, University of Lincoln

One theme in any story about higher education has dominated the headlines since the 1990s – the re-introduction of fees for UK undergraduate students and the removal of direct public funding for arts and social sciences students in England.  Yet higher education and Universities are involved in and have done many other things during that time. Governments have been almost entirely obsessed with the contribution of Universities to undergraduate education and how to pay for it.  While clearly this is a vital mission for Universities it is only one aspect of what University missions do. 

Along with educating students at undergraduate level they train the next generation of academics, through doctoral education and postgraduate study to ensure our society can compete globally.  Universities of course conduct research, develop new knowledge and this knowledge can and should be shared with the wider community, contributing to society’s overall development.  It is this mission which I believe we need to consider in more detail, particularly at this time as we seek to examine and re-purpose our society for the 21st century.

Historically Universities were very much connected to a civic mission; many of the nineteenth and early  twentieth century institutions grew out of the needs and desires of their local cities; Birmingham, Leeds, Sheffield and so on. However, despite some attempts to examine this mission through the Wilson and Witty reviews, the importance of this civic mission is downplayed by government and in some cases by Universities themselves. 

Wilson and Witty focused strongly on the economic benefits of Universities through their knowledge creation and their impact on industry and job creation.  Of course this is important, particularly at a time when as a nation we are trying to recover and rebalance our economy, but the historic civic role of universities was much wider than that; it included democratic engagement, service education and volunteering activities along with support for the arts and culture in the university’s locale.

During the 1980s Universities were able to start charging fees for international students attending UK institutions and since then we have seen a massive growth in international student recruitment making UK HE the 8th largest export in the UK.  Many have seen this growth in ‘internationalisation’ as working against a local mission.  It is suggested that some universities, with the old number cap on home undergraduate recruitment, became more concerned with their global mission than their localities. Research assessment also plays a part here where internationally recognised research is valued more than research for local authorities or local charities, important as this may be. 

As some institutions open up campuses in different parts of the world there is a view that Universities are becoming more like multi-national companies who could, arguably, move their ‘business’ anywhere if the economic and political climate suited them.  However I do not believe this need be the case. Many these international students moved to the UK because of the connection with the British colonial past, creating a particular diverse, vibrant mix in British society today. This mix of peoples, while particularly notable in certain cities and certain HEIs, is beginning to be reflected across the whole of the British HE sector. This means we need to look at the composition of our student body with different eyes, as has been argued by Peter Scott as far back as 2006.  Scott (2006: 21) pointed out that: ‘ international students in the twentieth century …are best seen in the wider context of global people flows; … Such is the scale of these flows, combined with even more massive ‘virtual’ interactions through the mass media, that familiar categories such as home and abroad (or international) has lost much of their significance’.(1)

Universities have been called ‘anchor institutions’, organisations that make a place because they are engines of development in their locale wherever that is.  Certainly at a time in the UK where many local services are disappearing and job creation in a more diverse economy is essential, Universities need to re-discover their civic missions, as John Goddard has argued.  He sets out how Universities can relate to their localities and proposes that government should be more interested in this mission and put resource around the development of a civic engagement mission for all institutions.  He cites the University of Newcastle which is re-invigorating its historic mission of civic engagement.  Along with Newcastle, I have seen the civic mission of a university operate in my city and at my University, Lincoln.  Lincoln is a more recent example than the older institutions of the early 20th century and I would see Lincoln as a case study of a 21st century civic institution.

In the 1990s, Lincoln was ‘dying as a city’ (as stated by the deputy chief executive of Lincoln city council), the story of Lincoln establishing a University is the story of the development of the city.  The University campus was established on derelict railway land, requiring significant cleaning up of the area and re-invigorating the area through the repurposing of industrial sites into new shops and restaurants.  The University also established the first Engineering School for over 20 years at Lincoln in 2010, securing the future of a proud heritage of Engineering in the region.  Goddard argues that HEFCE, the funding council for English institutions, should support such activities. It has certainly done so in Lincoln providing  funding for the Engineering School and the development of other new schools in the institution. Public funding for such activities is vital. It attracts and encourages other funders to support projects; in the case of the Engineering School securing the investment of Siemens and EU funds.  The city is growing, graduates are settling in the area and the University has supported over 300 new companies since 2000 who have survived the crucial ‘3 year test’. 

All too often however, Universities only work with the business community to focus their civic mission.  However while the business element is central both to the historic development of civic universities, there are other aspects to civic engagement; a new theatre for local and university use, links with schools to support curriculum development and a strong culture of student and staff volunteering are all possible features of a civic institution.  Most recently, at Lincoln we have begun working with the local authority and the voluntary sector to develop a social science park to develop new ways of thinking for supporting our communities. This has seemed to be particularly important as the nature of local social support is being reshaped by central government.  Using research techniques that include our local communities to design this project is essential if we are to develop sustainable solutions for the future.

At the same time, and going beyond this, I would argue that Universities need to take seriously their responsibilities wherever their campuses are, in the UK or in other countries.  Surely if an institution needs to support its region in the UK, any international activity should also be based on the same principles of giving back to the community that has welcomed it.  Universities have always had a mission to support the development of society. In internationalisation terms providing support for developing nations and developing communities is surely part of what we do. This requires considerable thought and sensitivity in different cultures.  Our history of engagement with different cultures is problematic and Universities need to tread carefully, which not all do.  There is some way to go to re-develop this idea of a global/local civic mission for Universities but it is one that I believe is vital for the health and future of our Universities.

Reference:

1)      Scott P (2006) Internationalising Higher Education – A Global Perspective in The Internationalisation of Higher Education in South Africa Ed Kishun R 2006 pp13-29

Mary Stuart is Professor of Higher Education Studies and Vice Chancellor of the University of Lincoln. Her latest book ‘Social Mobility and Higher Education’ was published by Trentham Books, 2012.

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