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Debates Around Civic Place

By Ben Hunt, Sector Insights Lead / 06 December 2023

People walking across a public square

A Collective Crisis

Relatively recently in the sector, there has been an increased focus on social responsibility and civic engagement, generating more debate around the focus and the definition of these terms. There are now fifty-nine universities committed to creating a Civic University Agreement. This article introduces some factors driving civic engagement in the sector, and discusses some of the challenges related to scoping where civic engagement should apply.

Steven Jones, in his recent book on discourses in higher education, writes that: ‘…higher education sectors no longer sit serenely above the fray, held in polite esteem by communities and left alone by governments. Now, universities find themselves under fire’. (1) In a Gallup poll in 2023, only 36% Americans were found to have confidence in higher education, down from 57% in 2015. (2)

It is clear within this that there are trust issues with higher education, or what Jones calls ‘integrity deficits’, which are ‘where activities and cultures in higher education are driven by the self-interest of individual stakeholders rather than by the collective good of the sector, and where what is said does not align with what is done’. (3) Mark Leach also highlighted the issues around the sector’s narrative: ‘The sector and its leadership are now suffering a collective crisis of moral authority, a crisis of leadership, and a crisis of identity’. (4) Leach goes onto argue that part of solving this crisis is becoming: ‘…unashamed social activists and social entrepreneurs, constantly focused on the public interest. We must be led by values not commercial, self-interest…it…requires reimagining the civic university for the 21st century, so that all universities are anchors in their regions...’. (5)

If the sector is in a crisis of confidence, both from ourselves and the way we are perceived, what can be done about it?

The Civic University

In 2009, in the wake of the financial crisis, John Goddard argued: ‘…all publicly-funded universities in the UK have a civic duty to engage with wider society on the local, national and global scales, and to do so in a manner which links the social to the economic spheres’. (6) The response to this duty, in Goddard’s view, was the conception of the civic university, one that had ‘civic engagement on local, regional, national, European and world scales as key parts of their mission’. (7) The need for change is a pressing issue now amongst university leaders. A recent PA Consulting survey of 40 Vice Chancellors from a range of institutions found that 80% of respondents felt the sector needed to embrace fundamental reform to survive and that one way of doing this has been establishing ‘place-related partnerships’ with local industry and communities. (8)

A civic university can be defined as a university that plays an active role within its communities through civic engagement as part ofits academic mission. This is different from having a ‘civic strategy' as an additional plan, separate from the core missions of education and research: civic engagement should be embedded throughout the university’s strategy and activities.

At the heart of civic engagement is reciprocal partnerships: mutually beneficial relationships between universities andinstitutions, including government, other educational institutions, schools, and business. This focus is often on the local and regional economy, or framed as ‘placed based’ partnerships, as stated in the final report of the Civic University Commission: ‘There is now a major opportunity. Partly, the industrial strategy and move towards greater devolution create an opening for a place-based approach’. (9)

Locating Civic Place: Three Considerations

One of the challenges of the civic university is defining where these placed based partnerships should be. What counts as ‘local’ in the 21st century university? The final report of the Civic University Commission calls for localism in higher education to be defined clearly: ‘Civic universities must be clear about what their local is…it cannot include everybody everywhere’. (10)

There are many issues with defining what is ‘local’.

Firstly, students are ‘digital natives’, who are accustomed to studying asynchronously across physical and digital planes. This is even more pronounced after the pandemic. It is the case that students, a core part of a university’s community, may be studying mostly online outside of any geographic locality.

Secondly, a university’s supply chain often has global links: many are large businesses, their decisions on investments clearly have ramifications beyond where they are physically located. Over recent years, there have been increasing calls for universities to divest from fossil fuels and to invest ethically within their supply chains. As of writing, there are 103 UK universities who have committed to divesting from fossil fuels in some form. (11) Part of universities divesting from fossil fuel companies is an acknowledgement that universities should take environmental commitments seriously as they impact communities beyond an immediate geographic locality. As such, limiting their civic role to their locality is challenging in the face of environmental concerns.

Finally, universities have recruited substantial numbers of international students, with 679,970 international students studying in the UK in 2021-22. (12) These students, as well as home graduates, will often work and live elsewhere globally, rather than where their university is situated. If universities are benefitting from global communities in terms of student recruitment, and their students go and work elsewhere, there is an argument that universities should contribute internationally to where these students are from.

As such, it is difficult to determine what ‘place’ means within the context of the modern university and why one locality should carry more value for an institution than another. As Jonathan Grant argues:

‘…communities may not actually reside in the same place as the civic university. They may reside physically elsewhere – potentially ten thousand miles away – and they may reside virtually’. (13) If civic engagement is to be embedded across an institution’s mission, there are other dimensions to consider aside from purely local ones.

What is consistent on the literature regarding the civic university is the need to co-produce projects and work with a university’s communities for genuine civic engagement. This is articulated by the Civic University commission within the framework of a Civic University Agreement which is: ‘co-created and signed by other key civic institutions’. (14) Grant puts it in different terms: ‘For the New Power University, the relationships with its communities – both physical and virtual – will be beyond any boundaries defined either by geographical place…or the ‘taking part’ of particular groups. (15)

Building a Civic Approach

It is essential, at a time when institutional trust in higher education is low, for universities to demonstrate their benefit to citizens beyond their economic role. Defining a university’s communities and engaging them appropriately is a core part of building trust. When building a civic approach, it’s important to consider:

  • Who a university’s communities are, locally, nationally and internationally

  • How a university interacts with these communities

  • How these communities can be deeply engaged in building a civic approach

  • How the civic approach is embedded across all areas of institutional strategy

Strive Higher are focused on enabling the sector, working with universities to be catalysts of social and economic justice. In further insights on this theme, we will discuss other dimensions regarding civic engagement, including ways to measure it, and how to deeply engage with stakeholders to create civic agreements.

If you’re interested in having a conversation with us about enhancing your civic engagement, get in touch.  


(1, 3) Steven Jones, Universities Under Fire, 1.

(13, 15) Jonathan Grant, The New Power University, 90 and 143


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