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Do cities get the universities they deserve?

By Clare Melhuish, on 8 July 2015

Universities are drawing on new languages and imagery to project visions of their future identity: they are abandoning the bounded, campus-based model of academia in the past and becoming ‘living laboratories’, ‘urban extensions’, and ‘communiversities’, embedded in urban contexts and communities. The ‘Urban University’ conference in Northampton last week brought together a large number of speakers, myself included, to discuss the different manifestations that these visions are taking, and the ways in which universities are working with cities to ensure that benefits are reaped by the wider public.

Amongst these, Northampton University is currently in the process of relocating its existing campus onto a new site in the town’s Waterside Enterprise Zone, much closer to the town centre. As Stephen Boyes from the Borough Council explained, many medium-sized towns are working hard to become ‘vibrant, attractive destinations’ that visitors, residents, and businesses are drawn to, and universities (such as Northampton) willing to engage with their cities can have a significant impact in making that happen – while others, such as Loughborough and its ‘bubble’ (a campus designed, he claimed, to ensure that students have no need to leave it for the full three years of their degree courses), do not. So, do cities get the universities they deserve? And if not, who’s to blame?

David Marlow’s question was posed in the context of his own presentation on Warwick University which, as he candidly admitted, had failed to stimulate the city’s economy, despite its own success. Indeed, the university is currently setting up an inquiry to examine how the university might change in order to deliver on the widely accepted assumption that thriving universities bring economic and social benefits to urban centres in the knowledge era.

John Goddard has done much work, both as an academic and as Deputy Vice Chancellor of Newcastle University, responsible for its physical development for 10 years, to promote the idea of the engaged, ‘civic’, or ‘public’ university, which he expounded to delegates. However he suggested that despite the emergence of the transformative, responsive, and demand-driven ‘quadruple helix’ business model for universities (university, business, government and civil society), which is fundamentally place-based and has generated a great increase in social innovation, such values are also under threat. As he said, lack of local demand and supply for students, and a drive towards recruitment rather than widening participation could cast adrift the so-called ‘anchor institution’ (to cite the term promoted by the Work Foundation) in a sea of globalisation and ‘place-less power’, as it was later described by Robin Hambleton, Professor of City Leadership at University of West of England, Bristol.

Hambleton positioned universities as ‘the sleeping giants of place-based leadership’, which are just awakening. He pointed to the example of Portland State University in Portland Oregon, a leading green city in the US, which makes all its students study sustainable development before they can graduate in any subject. Wendy Cuiker from Ryerson University in Canada, highlighted the Ashoka Changemaker movement as a mechanism for institutionalising place-based social innovation within universities – like Ryerson and Northampton – evaluated and designated by Ashoka as ‘changemaker campuses’ (for a fee of around $20,000). Cristina Devecchi from Northampton University outlined a vision for such ‘changemaker universities’ based on five future trends in the delivery of learning. Firstly, it will need to cater to a much wider mix of age-groups, not solely focused on getting a degree and into employment, but acknowledging a diversity of motivations for study, and tailoring courses in blocks and models to meet different needs; secondly, it will be solution-focused, engaging with creative thinking even before the problem is identified; thirdly, it will embrace open systems with continuous access; fourthly it will have global extension and connectivity, while at the same time providing a personalised experience; and finally, it will be socially responsible, rather than utilitarian knowledge, shaped by notions of justice, morality and sustainability.

However Allan Cochrane (The Open University) warned the audience to be suspicious of the language of ‘missions’ when it comes to universities. As he said, universities are not essentially altruistic organisations, but respond to business drivers much like any other – indeed, they can be huge institutions, landowers and major developers which have a significant impact on local demographics, often with unintended consequences. And, as Michael Edwards from UCL pointed out, even the best-conceived intentions for university engagement with local place and communities can be thrown off-track by new pressures on unviersities to behave more like businesses and align themselves with particular channels of power, which need to be resisted.

So how can cities and universities ensure that they work together to achieve the best outcomes for urban populations without compromising universities’ integrity? According to Hambleton, there’s no formula for ‘best practice’ in this arena – it simply has to be discovered locally; while from Devecchi’s perspective, 20 years of evidence-based and practice-based research has failed to produce any viable generalisations that can be applied to solve this conundrum.

I would suggest  that case studies do have much to offer in terms of delivering specific comparative insights into university developments in particular locations, which provide the basis for some degree of generalisation – despite the infinite variations to be found in the conditions and circumstances in which institutions are embedded. But other proposals were presented by Henk Bouwman of the Academy of Urbanism, which set up the UniverCities initiative in 2007 to encourage alliances between universities and other local urban agencies, who suggested there could be value in deploying a set of narratives to frame (and generalise from) different settings for the delivery of place-responsive learning programmes; and Emma Read Källblad from the Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm’s OpenLab, who presented the Thinkspace Matrix – a tool for universities to map out different knowledge publics against on-site space provision and access, and check how they’re doing in terms of place-based engagement. A trio of speakers from Historic England demonstrated how universities in Derby and Lincoln have also capitalised on the acquisition or otherwise of built heritage landmarks to reinforce their participation and representation in local culture. Lorraine Farrelly, head of the new School of Architecture at Reading University, touched on the possibility that it might incorporate a new ‘Urban Room’ for the city, following the recommendations of the Farrell Review of Architecture and the Built Environment.

None of these tools and strategies can guarantee success, which also, as Cuiker earlier highlighted, depends on strong leadership. But they point to the increasing concern shared by universities and urban actors to establish areas of common ground, methodologies, and a shared perspective from which to go forward in addressing key issues around the persistence of social inequality and deprivation in the emerging knowledge society of the future.

The Urban University: universities as place-makers and agents of civic success in medium sized towns and cities, July 2nd and 3rd 2015, was part of the University Town Northampton Project (UTN) and supported by the University of Northampton, Northampton Borough Council, and Northampton County Council. The project is led by Sabine Coady Schaebitz, Director of the University’s Collaborative Centre for the Built Environment (CCBE).

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