Many universities have taken up this challenge, often building on a long history of civic engagement and contribution.
There are some excellent examples of civic activity taking place in the sector, with passionate people in universities across the country contributing to their local communities. What is often less evident is a strategy behind that civic activity – the analysis of local needs and opportunities, clearly articulated objectives and the partnership vision needed to deliver it.
This is what led the UUP Foundation’s Civic University Commission to recommend the establishment of Civic University Agreements, with more than 60 institutions committing to do just that.
Since that 2019 recommendation, many institutions have launched CUAs, some on a single institutional basis, some bringing together several universities across a city or region to encourage greater collaboration.
These are a central focus of the Civic University Network (CUN) – set up on the back of the Civic University Commission – and intended to embed long term, strategic relationships between universities, their communities and other partners. The development of CUAs has had a significant impact on how universities prioritise partnership working and invest in long term mutually beneficial collaboration.
Huge appetite across the sector for closer support and collaboration
While much progress has been made, this work has however sharpened the focus on what is still missing. A key gap remains in relation to good quality evidence for what works, systematic practice sharing across the sector remains limited, and we also lack consistent and readily available tools for measurement of success.
If we are to embed a real culture shift in the sector, we need to address these gaps, alongside continued work to build capacity and leadership for more effective civic engagement.
This is where the new National Civic Impact Accelerator (NCIA) comes in. Supported by Research England funding, and operating under the CUN umbrella, the NCIA is about closing those gaps through an intensive programme of work, by the end of which the quality, consistency and sustainability of the sector’s civic activity should be much more strongly embedded.
We know there is huge appetite across the sector for closer support and collaboration, as well as to achieve impact in harder to reach areas, those where civic leadership is less advanced, or where national programmes find it hard to engage.
The fundamentals of NCIA are clear: building civic leadership capacity at a local level; a systematic evidence base that drives action learning; and catalysing place-based innovation. NCIA will draw in, and build on, existing strengths and expertise within the sector, on the depth and breadth of our research capability, and learn from partners beyond HE. This has huge potential to shift sector approaches and impact, and to make that final step to fully embedded and self-sustaining civic leadership.
The programme will also help to develop and implement approaches to understanding, applying, and scaling civic solutions designed to drive place-based transformations, providing universities with the tools and the framework to deliver meaningful, measurable civic activities.
The starting point for this will be robust evidence gathering of what works, providing universities with the intelligence they need to focus their strategy and practice to deliver results.
An action learning programme will act as the engine of the NCIA, developing practical and strategic tools to support rapid enhancement of civic performance.
And building on the convening power of the CUN, we will offer a coordinated programme of support and dissemination, enabling the sector and its partners to mobilise the intelligence created by the accelerator and influence the design and implementation of new civic activities.
Ultimately, the aim is to deliver impact beyond the sector through strengthened relationships, collaboration and greater alignment between universities and local ecosystems.
While Sheffield Hallam will host and lead the accelerator, building on our strong reputation for applied civic practice, innovation and inclusion, it’s far from being a task for just one institution. Partners include the Universities of Birmingham and Newcastle, QMUL, the OECD, and both the Institute for Community Studies and the National Coordinating Centre for Public Engagement. We’re also backed by the wider resources of the Civic University Network. The Network is now a well-established group of partners, each with our distinct perspectives and strengths, but who share a belief that universities have the transformational potential to benefit their place
However turbulent the external environment, it’s hard to think of a time when the civic role of universities mattered more. Through this targeted investment, we can sharply accelerate what we have already started: building the tools, intelligence, and culture shift which the sector and our places need; and demonstrating what – in the words of the UPP Commission – being “Truly Civic” means.