The Civic University: How should universities assess their economic impacts in a “civic age”?

Tim Fanning of Hatch Regeneris and David Marlow of Third Life Economics examine the implications of the Civic University Commission’s recent report for economic and social impact assessments in the sector.

If the Civic University Commission (CUC) Final Report, published earlier this month, is genuinely to change the type of impacts universities have on the places where they are located, we think that universities need to deliver impact studies and analyses in new, more explicitly civic and bespoke ways.

The role of the university economic and social impact study

In recent years, economic and social impact assessments have become an important part of the evidence base. The sector has used them to convey to national and local leaders, business and host communities its policy importance and the positive benefits institutions bring to their local areas. This reflects the increasing economic importance of universities to their local areas in many locations over time, as well as growing expectations on the sector to harness and demonstrate its wider socio-economic value.

Indeed, Hatch Regeneris are veterans of many university economic and social assessments. These range from members of the Russell Group (e.g. Newcastle), to newer universities (e.g. Lincoln), specialist institutions (e.g. University of the Arts London; Institute of Cancer Research), locally focussed institutions (e.g. UCLan), and groups of HEIs (e.g. the Yorkshire Universities).

These studies provide universities with a robust, independent baseline of their socio-economic footprint, as well as case studies of valuable activities. They are becoming an essential tool for external stakeholder communications.

That said, the baseline numbers (on jobs and GDP supported) alone do not capture the nuances and ‘difficult questions’ university footprints may raise for their host cities and communities. Most impact studies we see commissioned also often neglect to include forward-looking analysis that positions the university in its context to face the challenges of the future.

We have recognised this for some time and have recently augmented our university work by collaborating with David Marlow of Third Life Economics (3LE). David’s university projects in recent years have focused on elaborating forward-looking frameworks for university engagement – such as the 2016 Warwick Chancellor’s Commission report ‘The future roles of University of Warwick in Coventry, Warwickshire and the Midlands’ and a 2018 visioning exercise with Hatch Regeneris for a new University of Peterborough.

Together, 3LE and Hatch Regeneris have been encouraging our university clients to take the opportunity to consider these more strategic issues, alongside the hard-edged modelling of their local economic linkages.

The Civic University Commission report

It is with this in mind that we were pleased to see the publication of the new CUC report, in which some of these themes are extremely prominent.

First, CUC recognise that a university can only claim to be truly civic if its impacts (regardless of their scale) are underpinned by clear civic purposes and strategic intent. Second, they recommend capturing these purposes and intent in ‘Civic University Agreements’ with other key civic partners. Third, they suggest national incentives in performance measurement, funding, review and learning to support these agreements. Fourth, they recommend major changes in university behaviour, structures and processes to embed civic values and stronger community ownership of and affiliation with the institution – including new University Community Foundations.

Implications for future impact studies

There is much to commend in the report, and much with which we intuitively agree. But how should this impact on our work – especially impact assessment – in the future?

A rigorous quantitative analysis of the university’s contributions to its host location will remain a core part of any university’s study on its economic impact, and is important for local leadership teams including LEPs and local government charged with agreeing and delivering place-based strategies. But the CUC study implies a number of opportunities to add value to the approach:

  • The CUC usefully suggest four ‘tests’ for a civic university – public, place, strategic and impact – each with 2-3 dimensions to explore. These provide a good starting point for a more deliberative impact exercise which will necessarily engage partners and local communities more intensively and qualitatively than hitherto.
  • More fundamentally, we think there is the opportunity to complement the “here and now” impact snapshot with a more dynamic, forward-looking analysis. For instance, in quantitative terms, what are the socio-economic and other trends telling us and what questions do they raise? Qualitatively, how effectively is the university assisting in determining and delivering their geography’s vision, ambitions, and priorities?

This opens up the possibility for these exercises to be codesigned, jointly commissioned and coproduced with partners and university neighbours. We have seen this in some recent joint university projects with the universities of Warwick and Coventry and another for Yorkshire Universities. Perhaps we shall soon be seeing a pipeline of university ‘local compact’ projects actually commissioned by the local leadership team (e.g. the Mayoral Combined Authority and/or LEP), covering numerous universities, rather than being led by the university itself.

Did the Civic University Commission miss anything?

There are areas where we believe the CUC might have gone further.

First, although they recognise negative externalities they rather ‘pull their punches’ on university responsibility and accountability for these – and on how a Civic University Agreement might provide new ways of addressing them. Arguably, they also do not consider differing physical configurations of the institution and how this influences the future ‘DNA’ and way the overall urban system works.

Second, they tend to work within the current world-view of the full-service tertiary institution with a large campus servicing primarily 18-24-year-olds, post-graduate research communities, and a refreshed Adult Education offer. This might underplay evolution of new types of ‘university’ for the digital age, Industry 4.0, 5.0 and beyond. It also may undervalue the role of smaller specialists in areas like Arts and Creativity, Land-based, Professional Services or new emerging areas of activity.

Third, the CUC has little to say about university blank spots or those with very low HE densities. The reality of going forward is that huge swathes of the country will be increasingly aging and may have no or a very modest HE footprint in its area. Clearly it was not within the CUC’s remit, but ‘how non-metropolitan often-lagging sub-regions with chronic skills deficiencies, rapidly increasing old age dependency ratios, diminishing young persons’ dynamism create the sort of vitality universities can provide?’ is a legitimate question that merits further work. This will be particularly relevant if these places seek to establish or attract new or enhanced Higher Education provision.

Fourth, there is a genuine issue of whether the coming period is going to see much more focus on place-based university contraction rather than the assumption of expansion. The ‘perfect storm’ facing some HEIs – often in more vulnerable places – requires new approaches to impact assessment and to mitigating the shocks of withdrawal or major rationalisation.

There are other areas on which a longer piece might reflect. However, we hope this has given a flavour of how we will be approaching our work with universities and their civic partners differently going forward. It is an exciting area for our own professional development, and it is one from which we believe universities, their cities and their host communities, can be major beneficiaries in this most uncertain and volatile of periods.

For more information please contact Tim Fanning, Director, Hatch Regeneris


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