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How can university people strategies contribute to their civic mission?

By Simran Khanijau, Senior Consultant / 19 March 2024

Image of crowd of people

Our previous article on civic engagement, Debates Around Civic Place, explored some of the factors driving civic engagement and some of the challenges related to scoping where civic engagement should apply. 

This article applies a different lens to civic engagement, focusing on how a university’s people strategy can support the realisation and enhancement of its civic mission. 

Through a Different Lens

There are various perspectives to consider when defining the civic mission of an organisation. One aspect that particularly interests me is the potential influence employers can wield in addressing broader challenges within their local communities through their people strategy and subsequent employment practices. Given their substantial presence as local employers, universities can deploy strategic levers to make tangible, location-specific contributions and influence national discussions on employment practices. While international campuses and partnerships are becoming more prevalent, universities typically differ from other corporations or large employers by concentrating their main activities around specific campus sites rather than operating multiple branches. 

The evidence supporting the impact of these levers on team and individual performance is robust and expanding. For instance, hybrid and flexible working arrangements have been shown to enhance well-being (1, 2), thereby supporting optimal performance. (3) This flexibility also facilitates increased workforce participation, particularly among parents, women, and individuals with long-term health conditions or disabilities. (1)

Effective organisational development and design interventions can foster cultures and structures conducive to employee success and engagement, ultimately leading to innovation and outcomes aligned with institutional goals. (4) Such interventions not only benefit local communities, but also enable universities to diversify their talent pool and enhance engagement.

Taking the Lead to Effect Change

A university's staff body can be viewed as both the originator and beneficiary of social impacts. As prominent local employers with well-established collaborative networks, universities wield considerable influence over employment practices and their social impacts at regional and national levels.

In the UK, changes to employment practices are typically driven by competition among employers seeking to offer differentiated benefits or by campaigns advocating for issues such as flexible working or equitable wages. Employment practices can catalyse social change, improve individual well-being, and contribute to broader social outcomes. Factors such as sick pay, pension provisions, annual leave allowances, and parental leave, coupled with progressive employment practices, can profoundly impact individual employees and the communities universities aim to engage with.

Addressing Inequalities

Employer-led interventions can effectively address damaging inequalities that affect individuals directly or indirectly. For instance, enhancing paternity leave allowance can help narrow the gender pay gap and improve parental well-being. I believe that current legal reforms to the timing and flexibility of a two-week leave do not go far enough to support parents who cannot take shared parental leave and fail to tackle a key issue – equality and unpaid labour. Research from bodies such as the Centre for Progressive Policy (5) indicates the impact the current legal position has on increased mental health issues for both parents and the entrenchment of gendered social roles. Equitable paid leave for both parents is now offered by some institutions – and will play a significant part in developing a ‘new normal’. Where parental leave is state backed, e.g. Scandinavia, higher gender equality can be observed, as reported by the World Economic Forum (6).

The economic rationale for employment practices that support health outcomes through increased work-life balance is evident in the rising rate of employee sickness absence. Data from the 2023 CIPD Health and wellbeing at work report indicates the average rate of employee absence stands at 7.8 days per employee per year, a considerable increase from pre-pandemic data collected in October/ November 2019 (5.8 days per employee). (7) Initiatives such as the four-day week campaign pilot evidenced decreased levels of absence, stress and happier employees (8) (9). ONS figures support this picture, as workforce shortages continue (10). Public services across the country face decreased levels of funding, increased cutbacks – and increase the burden on certain groups to step in where the government will not. Enabling individuals to survive and hopefully thrive within our declining welfare state paradigm will without doubt improve lives and enable employees to navigate this transition.

People Strategies and University Civic Missions

Viewing people strategies through the lens of civic engagement offers opportunities for universities to deepen their civic mission by:

  1. Enabling diverse talent from local communities through employment practices,

  2. Addressing societal and gender-based inequalities proactively,

  3. Advocating for, and driving meaningful change in, employment practices at the national level.

Furthermore, analysing and quantifying the impact of people strategies on local communities may provide a unique platform for universities, and indeed the sector more broadly, to understand their place-based impact. The civic mission of a university can extend beyond the expertise of academics, and the volunteering time of staff – the outcomes of which can be significant as outlined herein. (11) Investments in flexible working, reducing pay gaps, leadership development, and other strategic outcomes can position universities as what HEPI describes as 'change-makers in place-based prosperity' (12).

Strive Higher are committed to empowering the sector and collaborating with universities to champion social and economic justice.

If you're interested in exploring how to develop your people strategy or enhance civic engagement, get in touch.  



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