Published: 05 March 2018
Regenerating universities: how can partnerships and community engagement help?
University students now hold greater influence and can exercise greater choice than ever before.
Government reforms, including the establishment of the Office for Students, are designed to shift the emphasis from the provider (universities) to the consumer (students). This sea change now encompasses explicit duties on providing and demonstrating value for money and has ignited a debate about the cost and value of tuition fees.
With no cap on numbers, competition for the best students is intense and some universities are losing out as their rivals seek to expand numbers at their expense. Many universities also rely heavily on recruitment of international students who provide significant value educationally and culturally, and also provide huge financial benefit to them and the wider economy. The country further benefits from the extension of its influence overseas when those students return home but retain their social and institutional attachment to the UK and their place of study. Tough visa conditions and political concerns about immigration may affect this source of revenue and influence in the future. Universities have to work harder to provide courses and facilities that will beat competition not only in this country but from around the world.
This competitive environment goes some way to explain why universities in England are now anticipated to spend over £19 billion on capital projects by 2020, according to analysis of their most recent five-year forecasts. Universities have been bullish about continued growth in the recruitment of students and a significant portion of the anticipated capital spend is reported to be funded by loans against meeting those and other targets. This is a material risk in the current environment. The extent to which tuition fees are funding capital expansion has also become controversial.
Realign with an original civic mission
Universities need to communicate and demonstrate the significance and benefits they bring to their students from the tuition fees they charge. This involves showing clearly how that money is being spent both on the education of the current cohort and in making the quality and standards of that education sustainable over time. They also need to work harder at engaging local citizens in their and town or city with the value they and their students bring to the local community.
These benefits cannot simply be articulated by reiterating the economic value universities generate or by the number of jobs they create, even when these are the outcome of the outstanding research, the practical translation of ideas or the transformation of business.
Many of our great universities were founded as a direct response to a civic desire to educate, provide skills, and create new knowledge to support local industries and thereby better the lives and opportunities of those who worked in them and their families. This instinct is still alive today. But many universities need to recover and re-express their original civic mission which was the driving force behind their creation.
Shakespeare Martineau is involved in a major new project, funded by the UPP Foundation, on the ‘Civic University’, which is led by experts in the field and will report later this year with recommendations for what this concept would mean in the 21st century.
In order for universities to be relevant today to their local communities, more needs to be thought about than just new buildings and impressive architecture. Particularly, connecting with communities is about promoting the cultural and social advantages for everyone: place-making and belonging and accessibility.
Relationship building in the wider community
Of course, universities can help to transform the physical environment and community infrastructure of their town or city. There are many examples.
Near to our offices in Birmingham, there is ‘The Hive’ in Worcester, a jointly-funded library and resource centre for the city and the university, and the University of Birmingham’s new sports centre and 50m swimming pool. Elsewhere, the planned new university for Hereford is being embraced by local residents because it will restore the city’s townscape and economy, have a positive impact on its future, and bring new opportunities and jobs.
Creating partnerships with the public and private sector
It is vital that the public sector, the private sector and universities - which may have extra land or brownfield sites at their disposal – along with other participants like housing associations and the NHS collaborate because sometimes, this is the only way of pushing forward new schemes that can benefit everyone.
An extensive university-led development in North West Cambridge is a shining example of an effective partnership. The final scheme will eventually provide 3,000 new homes - half of which are at affordable rents-, along with student accommodation and university and private-sector workplaces, as well as various community facilities such as supermarkets, street food vendors, senior living accommodation and a primary school. The joint charitable trust between the City Council and the university to manage the community hall for all Cambridge residents is a notably original feature of the partnership.
The New Lubbesthorpe development in Leicestershire is another such example. Similar to the Cambridge project, this urban extension scheme shares some similarities, particularly around how community interests will be safeguarded going forward. A visionary approach to the environment and its features for the residents of the 4,250 planned homes will be guaranteed through innovative arrangements to provide site management through annuities.
Regeneration should be a planned development
Promoting partnerships like the examples above is essential in convincing the wider community that universities can have the potential to enhance the lives of the wider population. Universities are not just the focal point for large transient student populations who live in a town but are not a part of it, instead, they are able to bring holistic benefits to the local community.
When carrying out master planning, a large emphasis should be placed on how a planned development can have a positive effect and should be consulted on extensively and comprehensively, outside statutory requirements. In many instances, this can be hard work, involving long evenings at open meetings with local residents and their representative groups.
It is important for universities to invest in facilities which showcase civic responsibility and do not just benefit their students and staff. Tapping into the student body is key tactic which should not be overlooked, often because they can be brilliant campaigners who give up their time working on volunteer projects and social enterprises. Student-led activities like this can counteract the perception of communities being overwhelmed by their very presence.
Planning projects which can deliver wider benefits for the town and region must be front and centre of a university’s purpose. The best examples of regeneration include partners who share the same motivation and together, can make sure that everyone, including students, staff and residents are all equally benefited and respected.