Teesside and Cardiff Universities were singled out for special mention by HEFCE’s Chief Executive, Professor Madeleine Atkins, in her plenary talk on universities as place-makers and anchors, at the NCCPE conference this week. Teeside, she said, by taking on MIMA (Middlesborough Institute of Modern Art) and ‘embedding it into the community’, was a prime example of how universities can intervene in the fate of museums and cultural organisations hit by ‘catastrophic funding cuts’ to local authority budgets, and develop them as cultural assets for the future by bringing in local communities. Cardiff, demonstrating not only how universities can take a lead in social innovation initiatives, but also that ‘the English are always one beat behind the Welsh!’, is the first university to open a social science research and innovation park (SPARK) – although a ‘few clones’ are now coming through in its wake. Staff and students in many universities are also now assuming or supplementing roles formerly played by local authorities or the voluntary sector, drawing on new forms of financial support such as Social Innovation Bonds.
Atkins used the examples to illustrate two in her five-point framework for a university-wide renewal of principles originating in the 1960s and 1970s around place-making and social engagement. For, as she said, the arrival of the 39 Local Enterprise Partnerships and European Structural Funds for regional development represent ‘the only secure source of funding for universities over the coming years’, and universities therefore need to embrace a multi-disciplinary approach related to the Grand Challenges to drive thinking and dynamics around engagement. She identified five specific areas in which this should occur: engagement with local schools; local skills agendas; social innovation and social enterprise; cultural engagement; and local economic growth.
HEFCE is encouraging universities to explore these routes through a number of initiatives. It will fund new local collaborative networks, in a programme to be announced by the government after Christmas. It has launched a tracker system, HEAT (Higher Education Access Tracker), to follow what types of engagement really work in terms of encouraging young people into Higher Education from school age level, and she commended the efforts of universities in establishing new academies and intervening in existing schools to raise academic achievement – although she also confided, ‘let’s hope those schools don’t go into special measures!’ She also noted that HEIF funding is being channelled into a social investment agenda through partnerships designed to promote local social cohesion and social confidence – and in turn attract inward investment (SEE Change). Furthermore, 20% of marks awarded in REF assessments will now be awarded to the Impact Case Studies, which will become accessible on a searchable database due to be launched after Christmas by HEFCE in parthership with Macmillans and researchers at Kings College London.
Finally, HEFCE’s call for proposals for being ‘a really fantastic anchor’ (Catalyst Fund) received 66 expressions of interest this week, and participants will be invited to work up full proposals for a ‘new model’ of anchoring institution by March next year.
Asked how close she thought we were to delivering that integrated vision of HE and place-making, she expressed optimism in the fact that Greg Clarke as combined Minister for Cities and Higher Education is ‘absolutely focused on this agenda’. However her concerns lie with the fate of towns in rural areas ‘at the end of the line’, and often around the coast, which ‘desperately need that stimulus’ but find they have fallen off the map. She also urged universities ‘to make the running’ with LEPs that may appear to have little interest in cultural and societal issues compared to hard economic growth
Before dashing off to discuss the Autumn Spending Review in London, she delivered a final one-line response to an invitation to comment on the government’s commitment of funds to UCL and UAL’s expansion initiatives on the Olympic Park, and whether they would benefit the local community: ‘Let’s hope so. I don’t see why not.’
For further information on the National Co-Ordinating Centre for Public Engagment’s annual conference (Dec 3rd and 4th, Bristol): www.publicengagement.ac.uk. Clare Melhuish (UCL Urban Laboratory), Kim Townsend (UCL Public Engagement), Andy Karvonen (University of Manchester Architecture) and Sam Wilkinson (InSite Arts) ran a workshop titled ‘Engaging places: insights on engagement through university spatial development’.