The creation of Civic University Agreements (CUAs) was a key recommendation of the UPP Foundation Civic University Commission. So, the fact that more than 50 universities are now committed to developing such agreements, with some already in place, shows how much the sector is already gearing up to help shape regional agendas.
Covid-19 has upended the status-quo for Universities as it has for others. The way we deliver education has changed significantly, and so too have the ways we interact with our wider community. But far from turning inwards, this changed context makes it more important than ever to focus on our critical role within the region we serve.
Earlier this year Sheffield Hallam were named as the host institution for the Civic University Network, which brings together and promotes best practice across the sector. The Network is proving to be a critical resource in helping institutions get their regional approach right during these challenging times.
"We want to be a beacon for what a university can do for and with its community"
On 2 November, the Civic University Network will host a free webinar focused on the role of universities that will launch new reports in two key areas of domestic policy: the regional 'levelling up’ agenda, and how to ‘grow back better’ after Covid. Given the circumstances we find ourselves in, this conversation has never felt so relevant.
Covid-19 has undoubtedly brought about a change in how we operate, but our values and civic vision remains the same: we want to be a beacon for what a university can do for and with its community. We can be proud of the work many universities have undertaken in responding to the immediate challenges of the pandemic, putting higher education at the centre of the response, but much more is needed.
This has included a volunteering programme which saw over 600 final-year healthcare students volunteer to join the frontline NHS workforce ahead of completing their course. Our researchers have developed resources to support vulnerable groups, including older people and those with dementia and their families. And through our ground-breaking South Yorkshire Futures programme, we have worked with Trauma Informed Schools UK to develop resources aimed at helping families deal with complex anxieties caused by Covid-19. There are many other examples from across the sector.
But while we continue to grapple with the pandemic in the short-term, we must also focus on supporting the long-term recovery of our region, in terms of our economy, health and wider quality of life for those who live here.
In many places across the UK, successful recovery will rely on the innovation, skills and resources that universities bring to the table. For example, our hugely successful GROW mentoring programme partners Hallam graduates with year 11 school pupils in South Yorkshire to provide support as they re-engage with their studies/GCSEs. The next cohort begins in November with 10 more schools across the region receiving the support.
As an applied university, we are also leaning heavily on our research and innovation expertise to ensure we are creating solutions to real world problems. RICOVR is a new research and innovation unit set up by the Advanced Wellbeing Research Centre, which is working with its local community in Darnall to help people recover and rehabilitate from ‘long Covid-19’.
In addition, we are supporting SMEs in the region through our business support offer with a range of practical advice and expertise to to help business adapt at this time of immense challenge.
The way higher education has responded to the pandemic has underlined how well placed universities are to play an even greater role within their local communities. Covid-19 has provided a new perspective on what ‘anchor institutions’ can and should provide to their communities and will be a key consideration for us in the development of our own Civic University Agreement.
After already consulting with over 650 people in our region to hear their thoughts on how we can best serve our community, we are ready to form our own agreement. Over the next few weeks and months, we will be talking more to our partners about how this can reflect “the new normal” and the many challenges that a Covid-19 recovery presents to South Yorkshire. However, in the meantime, our civic work doesn’t stop. Our community – as with every university town, city or area - needs us now more than ever.