17 March 2021: Universities in Local Communities

Secretariat 17 March 2021

All-Party Parliamentary University Group Meeting

Universities in their local communities

Wednesday 17 March


Chaired by: Daniel Zeichner MP


  • Lord Kerslake, Chair, Civic University Network
  • Professor Chris Day, Vice-Chancellor, Newcastle University
  • Chris Murray, Director, Core Cities
  • Richard Brabner, Director, UPP Foundation


Daniel Zeichner MP opened the meeting by stressing the importance of universities’ civic role, particularly in the context of the criticism regularly levelled at the sector.

Lord Kerslake, Chair of the Civic University Network spoke about the background to the Civic University Commission set up by the UPP Foundation, and the eventual report that included a set of recommendations for how universities’ role within ‘place’ could be improved. He agreed with Daniel Zeichner that universities needed strong local advocates to counter some of the negative rhetoric being heard in recent times.

Excellent individual examples of universities’ civic roles have been gathered during the Civic University Commission’s work leading up to the report, but the Commission felt there was scope to move beyond this and establish a new civic agenda to improve the impact of universities on their areas that was both holistic and inclusive. A theme of this work was ensuring that communities were genuinely key players and consulted at an early stage rather than having a university’s civic agenda put on them.

Moving on, he spoke about Covid-19 as a ‘disrupter’ and ‘destroyer’ but stressed that it had not been a leveller as the most deprived communities had been hit the hardest, with a disproportionate impact on BAME communities. He thought there was scope to expand the government’s long term plan to level up to make it more comprehensive and build on the useful ambitions already set out.

Lord Kerslake acknowledged the significant impact Covid had had on universities in terms of the finances and operational capabilities, but also bandwidth to focus on the civic agenda.

He made a series of recommendations as to how universities can work with local partners to advance the civic role during and beyond the pandemic including joining the Civic Universities Network, working with LEPs, Mayors and local authorities on their economic recovery plans and forming collaborative partnerships with local FE colleges.


Professor Chris Day, Vice-Chancellor and President at Newcastle University began by outlining his role as Vice-Chancellor of Newcastle University and Chair of the new Universities UK taskforce on the role of universities in economic and social recovery.

Professor Day relayed to the group the important role universities play in their local area by sharing research, creating national and international links, graduate and postgraduate skills, business support, coordinating economic and social activity and supplying evidence and analysis for strategic planning. He also spoke of the particular contribution of universities to the national effort against Covid by providing lab space, highly skilled staff, testing equipment, providing accommodation for healthcare workers, supporting graduates to join the front line and the research to develop vaccines and new treatments.

Newcastle University’s existing local partnerships enabled a quick response to the pandemic. Professor Day explained that the university formed a Covid-19 response project to coordinate activity, including research, volunteering and use of facilities and estates. He highlighted that they had effectively managed the student outbreak with no evidence of community transmission.

Professor Day provided an overview of the key areas the new Universities UK’s taskforce would explore including: identifying and promoting the role of universities in economic and social recovery (particularly at a local level), demonstrating and enhancing the impact of universities, sharing good practice, identifying and lobbying for policy recommendations and forming partnerships with key organisations, such as CBI and the Civic Universities Network. The two initial outputs of the taskforce would include a national prospectus identifying how universities can support employers, local partners, students and graduates and a position paper on the importance of place-based policy making.

Professor Day concluded by stating his firm belief that, if suitably recognised and supported, universities will be at the heart of recovery.


Chris Murray, Director, Core Cities began his presentation by drawing attention to the reality that urban areas were hit particularly hard by Covid in health and economic terms, linked to deprivation and high concentration of businesses respectively. Evidence shows that urban areas will continue to play a central role in the economy, despite likely shifts away from office-based working.

Chris went on to explain there was a growing demand to see positive shifts in cities post- pandemic around quality of life, quality of work and access to amenities and green spaces and that this would need support from institutions like universities, local businesses, public transport and local authorities.

Emerging priorities Chris identified included how Core Cities, universities and government can work together to incentivise place driven partnerships and multi-agency growth vehicles to align the relevant public and private partners, funds, institutions and financing around specific sets of issues. He added that 40% of university students were based in the 11 core cities making them a huge part of the local economies and populations.

He spoke about the partnership Core Cities had set up with 24 universities to work on local issues, and particularly three key areas to boost regional growth:

  1. The future of the innovation economy, including the green industry, linking to events such as COP26
  2. Repositioning the UK globally through its urban areas and their soft power including universities
  3. Combining policy research and delivery expertise to generate new solutions

He thought these key areas needed to link to an increased sense of local autonomy, stating that only 9% of the tax base in cities in the UK was retained locally whereas the OECD average was nearer to 25%.

Chris highlighted two further issues that had emerged as distinct priorities. Liveability- which encompassed high quality place making and attractive urban environments that are sustainable, feel safe and have access to the right amenities. Secondly, community- the building of cohesive, resilient populations that have an important link to economic wellbeing and a sense of civic purpose and pride. This emerged during the pandemic where people were reminded of the importance of public services.

Chris then offered suggestions as to how cities and universities could work together to achieve the priorities outlined, particularly thinking about interventions that would draw people safely back to city centres such as culture, learning and sport.

Finally, he spoke about the investment models needed to achieve this, stressing that a strong and consistent message and model was needed from government to show confidence to investors.


Richard Brabner, Director, UPP Foundation gave background to the Civic University Commission from when it was established in 2018 to look at the role of civic institutions in the 21st century.

One of the key challenges for universities in thinking about their civic role is geography, Richard explained. Most universities are in cities or large towns but there is a movement towards ensuring institutions have a strategic focus on the needs of their local communities. Several places with severe social and economic challenges do not have universities within them but do have universities within their wider region and this should be better understood.

The UPP Foundation produced a report published in November which focused on the role universities could play within left behind areas, whether as lead actors or in partnership with others, and what people living in such areas actually wanted to see.

Richard turned to UPP Foundation’s public opinion work including polling and focus groups in key areas with C2 non-graduates. The polling found that people that lived in cities were much more positive about their local area than those who live in small towns, for example, 30% of participants in cities said their local area was improving in comparison to 17% in smaller towns. Regardless of where participants lived, housing, supporting the NHS and the regeneration of highstreets were the most important priorities for supporting local areas going forward.

59% of people said they want universities to play a greater role in the local area, they felt that universities’ main civic responsibilities focused on educational attainment, aspiring school children to think about their future and developing closure links with schools and colleges. Participants were also very supportive of universities localising their economic footprint for example hiring locally, conducting research in improving local area and encouraging graduates to stay local.

Over a third of participants had never visited a local university and this increased to 40% for those from form C2DE backgrounds. In general, there was apathy towards all civic institutions and low levels of knowledge on what they do. Universities were in the middle of the pack, with local sports clubs, hospitals and local charities to be performing best for the local area.

Richard then talked the group through the report’s recommendations across five areas, which included:

  1. Regenerating town centres – in partnership with local authorities, schools, colleges, businesses, charities and other civic institutions, universities could play a convening role in creating mix use facilities in town centres.
  2. Raising attainment – strong role for universities in medium to long term to work with schools and colleges in local areas.
  3. Supporting NHS – including formal partnership on surge capacity
  4. Research – whether as part of shared prosperity fund or other levers that the government should be a major interdisciplinary research programme looking at post-industrial towns.
  5. Skills and economic role

Finally, Richard explained that although the report did not explicitly call for more funding for universities, it did call for incentives to support universities in their civic role and considered whether there needs to be a placed based funding pot in the system to do that.