Labour Party Conference 2013

Last week Professors Mark Shucksmith and John Goddard headed to the Labour Party Conference in Brighton to take part in a fringe event organised by the University. This panel debate on “The University in the City” was chaired by local MP Chi Onwurah and featured contributions from shadow ministers Gordon Marsden MP and Gareth Thomas MP. Read the transcripts of their speeches, highlighting the role of universities in cities and how this relates to social renewal.

Professor Mark Shucksmith:
Newcastle University is well-known for its vision to be a world-class civic university. This means not just being excellent in our research and in our teaching and learning, but being part of the wider community and putting our excellence to a purpose. We strive to address the major societal challenges of our time by asking not just what are we good at, but what are we good for?

One of the societal challenges the University is addressing, and the one that we’re here to discuss today, is Social Renewal. For us, this means addressing the question: how can people, communities and societies thrive when faced with rapid, transformational change? Like many other countries, Britain needs to understand and address the impact of trends such as globalisation, technological innovation and demographic change. These trends can bring great benefits, but also leave us with significant challenges to which there are no simple or obvious responses. Old certainties have gone and many of our previous assumptions are no longer valid. This has left many people feeling powerless, especially given the failure to provide convincing solutions to these challenges. This sense of powerlessness threatens to undermine the political process itself.

A crucial element of any response must be to gather research-based evidence, often provided by universities. However, perhaps even more important than simply gathering the evidence is to help deliberate and debate what we understand to be a ‘good life’ and a ‘good society’. Universities, and social science departments in particular, have a vital role to play in informing these discussions.

Newcastle University’s Institute for Social Renewal is pioneering a new approach to addressing these challenging but vital questions, combining expertise from across the University. It takes in work as diverse as analysing the impact of welfare reform to working with post-trafficked women in Nepal; from investigating smart specialisation in regional economies to advising on issues of affordable rural housing; from enquiry-based learning and rethinking the school curriculum to investigating the wellbeing and resilience of young people. With the contributions of colleagues from across the University, the Institute is helping communities, policymakers and businesses understand and consider the future of society.

For instance, last year almost 10,000 people visited our Great North Build project, using over 110,000 bricks to construct a giant Lego town. This gave them the opportunity to consider what makes somewhere a good place to live, what institutions are needed for towns and cities to thrive and the policy decisions that need to be taken to address major issues such as planning for population growth and environmental sustainability. It also anticipated the “Toon Monsoon”!

And, of course, another one of those contributions is my colleague Professor John Goddard’s excellent work on the place of the university within the city, which is our focus this evening. Through his book, John seeks to address questions about what it means to think of universities as ‘anchor institutions’ and what kind of relationships they should seek to build with local authorities, community groups and private firms. More importantly, John considers the policy implications of the changes taking place in the global higher education marketplace and the effect of austerity on the contribution universities are able to make to their cities.

Only by being willing to bring these sorts of issues into the public sphere can we seek to overcome the challenges society is facing.


Professor John Goddard:
As Mark said, my area of focus is on the idea of universities as ‘anchor institutions’ in cities, particularly in what is currently a turbulent financial and political environment for both.

The first thing we have to think about is what the term ‘anchor institution’ means. Although there is no consistent definition, generally people think of anchor institutions as large but locally embedded institutions, typically in the non-governmental public sector. They are often cultural or other civic institutions that have a significant impact on the local economy and wider community life of the city in which they are based. Anchor institutions are those that can support wider economic and community activity within the local area. They are of the city, not just in the city.

To quote The Work Foundation, while the primary mission of an anchor institution does not necessarily involve regeneration or local economic development, their scale, rootedness and community links mean they play a key role. If you like, they represent the ‘sticky capital’ around which economic growth strategies can be built. Universities, along with teaching hospitals, are archetypical anchor institutions. They are of the city, not just in the city.

Based on past experience, universities were assumed to be relatively immune to institutional failure or sudden contractions in size. This meant they have been a source of stability in local economies and helped to buffer against the worst effects of periodic downturns. They have been particularly important as anchor institutions in weaker urban economies.

But, if you were listening carefully, you may have noticed my deliberate use of the past tense! Why? Because these assumptions and behaviours may not hold true in the future. Universities across the globe are struggling to cope with the changing higher education marketplace. They are not equipped or resourced to deliver the public goods that embed the university in the city and contribute to economic, cultural and environmental development in times of austerity. Universities may be forced to stop those activities which do not contribute directly to the bottom line, meaning we are at risk of losing institutions we rely on to create sustainable, healthy and creative cities.

This has huge policy implications. Firstly, we need to address some fundamental governance issues. Like most countries with a centralised administrative structure, higher education in England is a national responsibility and policy does not have an explicit territorial dimension. Although the impact of policy decisions will be different for individual cities, most city administrations have little experience of higher education. In addition, BIS has national industrial and innovation strategies which are aspatial, while CLG has little interest in issues of higher education.

However, coalition ministers seem to increasingly be regarding universities as magic bullets that will solve the local development problem and help rebalance the economy spatially, for example through their inclusion in City Deals and via the delivery of smart specialisation within the next round of European Structural Funds. But there is no organisation with responsibility for understanding what higher education is provided where, and which institutions might be at risk. Identifying anchor institutions in vulnerable places has been left to researchers like me, and my colleagues at Newcastle University and elsewhere.

Which leaves us asking: what would happen if a university was to fail? HEFCE does not have the resources to bail out failing institutions, nor does it have the power to force a vulnerable university to merge with a stronger one if one could be found. In practice, it is unlikely that any government would let a university fail. But it is still vital that cities and universities work together to make the case for civic universities as anchoring institutions, and resist the temptation to look inwards and disengage with each other when times get tough.

Turbulent times could be a stimulus for universities and public authorities in each city to identify areas of mutual interest. For example, through the concept of the city as a ‘living laboratory’ for university research, now strengthened by the REF impact agenda. Or through local work-based learning as a means of enhancing graduate employability, or attracting mobile investment through global research links. Most importantly, the civic university can act as a multifunctional development actor within the city, mobilising its research and teaching to contribute the development across a number of areas.

All of this has implications for how universities should be led, managed and overseen as civic institutions. It is vital that we share our experiences and expertise to understand how best to do this.

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