Comments on the Civic University Commission Report


Yesterday, the long awaited Civic University Commission Report led by Lord Kerslake for the UPP Foundation was published. The report contains a welcome summary of findings the commission obtained during the past year when it gathered evidence across the UK seeking to better understand and revitalise universities’ ‘civic role’.  

As editor of a new journal also founded, in part, to understand the relationships between universities, civics and places, I wish to add some constructive, critical comments to support progress of this most important agenda. The commission has been agenda-setting in bringing the significance of knowledge and places to the forefront with many ambitious recommendations including a call for £500 million investment from the UK government to encourage wider participation and embeddedness of universities in their local communities.

The report notes that universities function as ‘anchor institutions’ driving much economic growth and cultural activities within their local and regional geographies. However, few universities appear to have systematic or strategic approaches, and the commission recommended and has successfully obtained from nearly 3 dozen institutions a ‘Civic University Agreement’ that commits them to developing such an intentional approach in collaboration with local communities and partners.

The report also provides an interesting analysis to explain the retreat or minimization of universities from their local and regional constituencies, highlighting a range of internal incentives, including research prestige hierarchies in which ‘local research is often considered second or third best’ (p.7). These status distinctions also motivate our journal, in seeking to provide a space in which sociological (and interdisciplinary) research, projects, case-studies and so on can be discussed alongside the more traditionally-recognised ‘leading’ or ‘excellent’ forms of scholarship.

Local research can be excellent, too

The report also connects the decline of universities’ civic roles to macro-changes in the knowledge economy, including especially changes in the global labour market, the rise of Asia, the growth of automation and declining trust in elites. It is worth reading the nuanced account of this within the report itself (pp 22-24). Yet, more could be said to link the chaotic context in which the report finds itself publishing: specifically, we are little more than a month away from Brexit, while awaiting a public review of the student-loan funding model, while we also learn daily about systemic failures of university governance. 

In particular, the growth of populist distrust in experts should not be treated as ‘exogenous’ to the decline of local and regional issues within universities, government and economic agendas.  Indeed, we should be interrogating the assumptions behind economic, political and cultural globalization, which have positioned certain classes, regions, institutions and voices at the centre of ‘progress’, while others have been ‘left behind’ (including both rural/suburban communities and more-or-less segregated, poor neighbourhoods within urban spaces).

Undoubtedly, universities should play a major – perhaps central – role in re-connecting these places to the broader professional, academic and business networks that have hitherto rarely taken responsibility for those outside their narrow (generally economic) frames of reference. However, a question should be placed to the Civic University Commission, which would not be dissimilar to one that should have been put to the regulators of financial industries in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis: does it make sense to put the same institutions, the same managers who got us into this mess, in charge of getting us out?

This is partly a question of method insofar as the commission by and large spoke with university ‘leaders’ (as well as other third-sector and government partners) – that is, Vice Chancellors, Pro-Vice Chancellors and so forth. Which is typical of the government select committees that the commission modelled itself on, and sensible if one adopts a ‘take me to your leader’ approach. And, the report picks up on a range of success stories and fascinating case studies ranging from Newcastle to the Netherlands to the history of the land grant universities in the USA. Such examples of best practice and identification of institutional challenges inform the commission’s impressive list of recommendations. 

  1. Civic University Agreements

  2. Adjusting measurements and assessment criteria (e.g. REF/TEF/KEF) to reduce perverse incentives – perhaps replacing with peer review by other civic universities

  3. New funding, including £500m civic fund over 5 years and doubling of ‘Strength in Places’ fund within government’s Industrial Strategy Research Fund – also connecting with/expanding widening participation funding

  4. A National Network of Civic Universities

  5. Locally-based initiatives for widening participation

  6. More university-sponsored schools

  7. Adult Education – the main subject/cause addressed in the commission’s interim report

  8. Retention of staff and graduates locally, especially in health sector

  9. Universities as role models as employers, procurers and brokers

  10. Universities being catalysts for local economic growth

  11. Broadening local cultural strategies, including a very promising idea for University Community Foundations.

 To achieve these ends, the commission recommends a number of tests could be put to universities developing their Civic University Agreements: a ‘Public Test’, a ‘Place Test’, a ‘Strategic Test’, and an ‘Impact Test’ – each of which would provide measurable indicators of improvement and success.

The content tests measure are sensible, including whether local people identify with ‘our university’, whether local labour markets are adequately engaged with and whether clear boundaries exist in terms of which places universities accept responsibility for, and whether linkages exist between multiple universities sharing local areas. (Imagine linking all the universities in Greater London together, for example!)

The last, ‘Impact’ test involves whether the local impact can itself be measured. And, in general, it is this demand for targeted, strategic and measurable outcomes that strikes me as problematic if this auditing principle precedes prior work to think through what exactly we are talking about doing in terms of civic action and, then, how one might go about doing it. In other words: shouldn’t measurement come last, not first?

And, ultimately, this is what I refer to in questioning whether the same managerial actors can be trusted to re-engage with local communities, when these actors have accommodated and advocated for the perverse incentives we see driving the disengagement. I do not mean a literal culling of management staff – folks could keep their jobs! (which many realise are structured incorrectly, in any event). What I mean is that we might have to confront the fact that, as the history of civic universities presented in the report shows, universities used to be much better at this work, and it has been precisely during the rise of auditing and new public management that this civic role has gone into retreat. 

Perhaps it is measurement itself which is the problem – particularly narrow, target-driven, KPI-driven forms of intervention, which, studies show, limits the more diffuse and organic opportunities for change, indeed, positive change as such. 

Further, we run the risk of turning the civic university agreement initiative into a branding exercise if we expect this agenda to be managed from the top down. There are good reasons why managers and professional services personnel in universities feel more attachment to their places: they live there.

Academics, on the other hand, are an especially mobile bunch. Many do not even live within their own place of work – commuting several hours by train, renting rooms, hotels and hostels. Similarly, as casualization has increased dramatically in recent decades, early career academics often have to move once a year or more, rarely having the time to invest in their local communities. And ‘world leading’ researchers probably spend more time in airports waiting to deliver keynotes overseas than they do in their offices. 

This, I would argue, is the actual heart of the matter and one the commission does not really address: what is the role of academics in the civic university of the future? Universities in recent years have become more and more complex, audited, hyper-regulated institutions, in which academics feel increasingly frustrated, as the recent USS strike of 2018 revealed. And I continue to be struck by the way in which university management has pretended this division between staff and institution does not exist, sweeping the matter under the rug, rather than adopting a more sensible response: namely, tapping into that energy to reconstruct the foundations of higher education for the 21st century.


For, ultimately, what recent decades of university history reveal is a striking lack of civic participation both within and across communities, but also within and across universities. For this reason, the civic university network ideas and the collaborative approach the commission recommends should become much more central in re-thinking the university as a local, national and global network of institutions that are not in competition with one another. Rather, just as academics collaborate with colleagues across the country and around the world, universities should begin to tackle the local, national and global challenges we face, together – with each other as well as each of our local and regional communities.

For as 19th century civic sociologists understood, universities and cities are not mere nodes within a global field of metropoles. Rather, we link our regions and hinterlands – from hamlets to villages to towns to cities – with a global, human community. We have stopped doing this under pressure to perform within a form of globalization that positions particular classes and groups – generally those who have benefited most from higher education – at the centre of wealth, power and culture, leaving the remainder behind. We need to re-engage – but this is not going to occur by adding additional functions to an already teetering managerial edifice as exists at present within our universities.

We need to rethink the entire notion of what higher learning is for, and a new idea of a civic university is a compelling frame and opportunity through which this can be achieved.

To that end, I will conclude by adding a few recommendations to the commission’s already impressive list.

  1.  New Forms of University Settlement, drawing on the historical success of civic sociologists in the 19th and 20th centuries, we need to address affordable housing for students, academics and communities. Because, in fact, universities already do have a major local impact: high housing prices.

  2.  Public Lecture Circuits, engaging academics to develop new curriculum that are not designed for degree-awarding courses. We need to rethink widening participation solely in terms of who enrols and travels to campus actually or virtually to be assessed. We all need to recover the wonder of working at the frontiers of knowledge, not least in order to…

  3.  Tackle Urgent Environmental Challenges, climate change being only one of many instances in which we need local and regional efforts to take place around the world, more or less as soon as possible.  Universities are one of the only global institutions, other than governments and markets (neither of which are sorting this out at present) that could coordinate and collaborate to address these major challenges.

These three goals could, in principle, be integrated within the UPP commission’s recommendations. However, the ways in which these activities would be ‘analysed’ – as the commission recommends using its four tests – might require a more substantial overhaul. In short, we should invest in civic sociological (broadly conceived) modes of tackling these problems.

One of the notions guiding some of our research in Civic Sociology includes recognition that our societies have become overdetermined by the analytic logic of a particular set of disciplines/professions – economics and business, especially – whereas a broader set of views and ways of analysis, including sociological, legal, educational, historical and so on would translate into genuinely transformative approaches to the ways we organise our societies locally, regionally, nationally and globally.

In this regard, we at Civic Sociology both welcome the agenda-setting findings of the commission’s report and hope to continue the discussion as we reach toward new ways of connecting and integrating universities, knowledge and societies.

Eric Lybeck
Editor-in-Chief, Civic Sociology