Civic Universities and the central South

Dr Simon Eden

There is a lively discussion about the role our universities have in the towns and cities they are part of. As local authorities and other public bodies are forced to cut back, so institutions like universities become more important in civic life. At the same time, Ministers have cautioned against “universities becoming disconnected from the wider world… [and] …seen as distant from their communities” (Sam Gyimah, Universities Minister, September 2018).

Universities are of course educators, but they’re also employers and partners in local cultural life. They can help build thriving communities. February’s report by the Civic Universities Commission (CUC) “Truly Civic: Strengthening the connection between universities and their places” is another prompt to us to think about the role of universities in securing economic, social and environmental regeneration of their towns and cities.

The University of Portsmouth and the Southern Policy Centre wanted to understand how universities in the central South had responded to the challenge of becoming ‘civic universities’. We invited Lord Bob Kerslake, Chair of the CUC, to discuss the Commission’s ideas with senior university, council and LEP leaders from the region. This is SPC’s view of the discussion that ensued.

Lord Kerslake began by reflecting on the history of universities in Sheffield. He had spent ten years as Chief Executive of Sheffield City Council and worked closely with the University of Sheffield and Sheffield Hallam University. Both had deep local roots, with their origins in the city’s community. Both had played a role in the regeneration of the city in the late ‘90s. This story was repeated in cities across England.

Recent national policy had driven the marketisation of higher education and altered the focus of universities. That risks a diminution of their connection with their home town or city. But, in Lord Kerslake’s view, as HE policy is evolving rapidly that link is becoming more important. Universities need their communities to act as advocates: to say how important a thriving HE sector is for the success of the place.

As they went around the country the CUC found lots of civic pride in local universities. There were lots of good examples of collaboration. What they felt was missing was a strategic approach, creating a narrative for the role the university played in shaping their place. Such a narrative should be place-specific: what mattered in Sheffield would be different from the role the University of Southampton or Solent University played in their city.

The CUC had proposed the relationship be captured in a Civic University Agreement, unique to the place. These Agreements must be bottom up, central prescription would miss the point. They must add value to local relationships. They should not be seen as an obligation but an opportunity. One of Commissioners had captured the spirit exactly when they said their aim was to “get people talking about our university, not the university”.

Participants acknowledged the pride that cities and towns felt in their universities. There were good examples of our universities supporting a wide range of local initiatives. Places which did not host an HE institution were keen to see a university presence in their areas, to help boost aspirations and achievement, and support economic regeneration. There were opportunities to work together to improve access. One participant encouraged universities to draw on the knowledge and skills in local education authorities to help reach all parts of the community. It was generally agreed that the central South’s universities have a key role to play in improving the chances of the “left behind” in our communities.

However, high-level strategy should not be at the expense of addressing more immediate challenges. A local authority participant suggested some sections of our communities were less convinced of the benefit a university brings. They only experience a negative side to universities: the pressure students place on the local rented housing market or the problem of noise or parking. We should not lose sight of these concerns as we try to build a positive civic role. As one participant put it, it pays to focus on the small stuff.

The discussion also touched on the complex geography and politics of the area, with a mix of two-tier and unitary councils, and complicated LEP boundaries. Given the complexities of our administrative geography and the interdependence of our different communities, there is no simple set of one-to-one relationships between universities and local communities. But the fact that our universities reach across administrative boundaries is a potential strength. There is an exciting opportunity to collaborate across institutions and sectors in building our shared future.

One participant ask how far that civic role should extend: for example, should a university take an active role in encouraging the re-use of former student housing to meet local need? The answer, participants agreed, depends on the institutions – councils and universities – involved. What works in one city may be less important or effective in another. However, participants agreed that universities needed to take responsibility for their wider impact on the community, and contribute actively to civic life, rather than simply adopt a reactive, even slightly defensive approach.

All agree our universities are a key part of the wider narrative of the central South and our distinctive identity. And there is a clear appetite for developing our shared understanding of the civic role of our universities. Several are working towards Civic University Agreements to try to capture local opportunities and impacts. In doing so, they should share ideas and approaches, and perhaps use Agreements as an opportunity to build wider partnerships. 

The discussion was a rare opportunity for councils and universities from across the central South to come together. We should seize the opportunity to continue that dialogue, particularly amongst our HE institutions. We can all gain when all the universities in the central South work together and learn from each other’s experience – whether on Civic University Agreements or other shared interests.

Localised Widening Participation Strategies – a data-based approach

The results of a year-long study by the Southern Policy Centre, supported by the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) and GuildHE.

The study has used ‘open data’, and data held by local councils, to explore why able young people may miss out on university. The data has been used to suggest possible local widening participation strategies.

Widening participation in Higher Education

New study sheds light on why Southern students miss out on university

Over 50 young people every year are missing out on university from just five local government wards in Poole, Hampshire, Southampton, Isle of Wight and Portsmouth. And over 100 more should be going to university, according to Government targets.

These stark figures were at the centre of a ground-breaking conference being held at Southampton Solent University on Friday 28th October. The conference heard the results of a year-long study by the Southern Policy Centre, supported by the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) and GuildHE.

The study has used ‘open data’, and data held by local councils, to explore why able young people may miss out on university. The data has been used to suggest possible local widening participation strategies.

Issues identified include:

• Students who get good GCSE results are less likely to go to university than their peers elsewhere
• In some areas, poorer students get markedly less good results at GCSE
• The number of students going to college at 16 varies widely, as do drop-out rates
• Areas where parents work in less skills jobs or have fewer qualifications have lower levels of participation in higher education

The analysis has been used to suggest local interventions including:

• Targeted support for able students from local areas
• Support for parents to raise aspirations
• Engaging the assistance of employers, community
organisations and social housing providers

Chair of the Southern Policy Centre, John Denham, said:

“This is an innovative and ground-breaking project that suggests practical ways to reduce the number of able young people who may feel that university is ‘not for them’ and are currently missing out on higher education.”


The data analysis toolkit is here: hefce-toolkit-october-2016

John Denham’s slides are here: jd-hefce-slides-27-oct-2016

Ceri Nursaw’s two presentations are here: ceri-pres-1 ceri-pres-2

Mark Frank’s presentation is here: the-data-analysis-toolkit-v2

The full report can be read here: hefce-report-october-2016

Why are some areas falling behind in university participation?

SPC launches major new research project into widening participation to Higher Education

The Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) have produced and published a set of analysis that looks into trends in HE. In particular their statistics on young participation show that there are unexplained gaps in levels of participation from area to area.

The Southern Policy Centre have been commissioned by HEFCE to look more closely at five local authority wards in southern England. We want to know:

  1. Whether there are other available data sets that explain why participation in HE is lower than expected in these areas
  2. How we can use this information to improve widening participation strategies for these areas
  3. If we can use this research to produce a toolkit for other similar areas up and down the country

We’ll be working closely with universities, schools, local authorities and Local Enterprise Partnerships to conduct this project.

For more info please contact Izaak on

Get updates on this work through the weekly newsletter

SPC hosts senior Higher Education policy round-table

This week, in collaboration with Solent University, we were delighted to host a senior higher education policy round-table. Topics discussed included access, funding and the economic roll of HE. 

Among those attending were the chair of the Business Select Committee, two former cabinet ministers for universities, the current Chief Executive of the HEFCE and other leading figures in the sector.​

Related links:

Southampton Solent University supports SPC’s first inaugural roundtable

Our work on education and skills