Finding our civic voice: the first year of the Civic University Network

The civic role of universities is a vital piece of the jigsaw for COVID recovery. Richard Calvert, Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Strategy and Operations), at Sheffield Hallam University, reflects on the first year of the Civic University Network. 

Launching the Civic University Commission

“Have we done the right thing?”

We’ve all asked that more times than we’d like to remember over the last year.

An early test for me was back in March 2020, when we’d just won the bid to run the new Civic University Network.

We’d always planned to bid. Civic engagement is at the heart of Sheffield Hallam, and we’d been closely engaged in the work of the Civic University Commission the year before. We’d put together a consortium with Newcastle, Birmingham, Glasgow, and Queen Mary, as well as sector experts in public and community engagement.

I’d gone to London a few weeks earlier to present our bid in person. Remember those days?

We talked confidently of conferences, events, venues, and much more. We also discussed a policy backdrop which, while not without risk, at least felt more predictable than the chaotic previous year of Brexit battles and another general election.

Then came lockdown, and all that went with it.

The idea of setting up a new network to engage universities and civic partners around the challenges laid down by the Civic University Commission suddenly seemed like a rather more daunting task.

The Civic University Commission in lockdown

A year on, it all feels very different.

Digital engagement is the norm. Running the Network digitally has almost certainly enabled us to scale up activity at a pace, and with a level of active participation, which we’d never imagined under the old model.

That’s not to say that we’ll never hold face-to-face events in future, but a much more mixed economy of physical and digital engagement is surely the direction of travel for most such networks in future.

And while COVID and its impact dominate almost every aspect of public policy , the importance of universities has only grown, both as civic anchors and influencers, and as drivers of economic and social recovery. This has been evident as we and our partners have responded to the pandemic at local and national level, and as we have started to plan routes to recovery.

Growing the Civic University Commission

The Network now has 115 universities signed up, from across the UK, and from all parts of the sector.

Some already have Civic University Agreements (CUA) in place, some are still in preparation. In some places, we’re seeing really collaborative approaches across neighbouring universities. In others, individual institutions are leading their own CUA. Some are focused broadly, some more narrowly on specific themes or geographies.

This diversity is surely one of our strengths – there’s no “one way” to do civic. But it also underlines what really brings the Network and its partners together – a commitment to place, and to the role which we can all play.

While we are a network of universities, our first year has also been characterised by increasingly strong partnerships with other sectors. Not surprisingly, our work on strengthening NHS partnerships has been a strong feature, as has work on economic recovery.

Work on skills and addressing educational disparities is a key driver of civic engagement in many areas, as is continuing engagement with the arts and culture. We’re also increasingly bringing in international links and perspectives, and working with government and sector agencies, including the Office for Students and UK Research and Innovation.

The Network aims to share good practice and ideas. But it’s also founded on a commitment to impact and outcomes. This is underpinned by a peer review system to enable members of the Civic University Network to assess their institution’s civic impact and plans.

The Civic University Network conference

Much of the Network’s activity will be in evidence at our inaugural conference: The Civic Movement – Universities Working in Partnership. This is a free virtual event which will take place from 18 to 20 May 2021.

The conference will:

  • Celebrate the work undertaken by the Civic University Network and its members over the past year, and to share best practice and learning
  • Provide an understanding of the key national, regional, and local policy landscapes within which universities can make a difference and have an influence
  • Challenge thinking and shape future collaborative conversation.

We all face extraordinary challenges as we work through the impact of COVID, not just as individuals, but also on our institutions and our communities.

The civic agenda can provide a key piece of the jigsaw as we shape our contribution to recovery, both locally, and nationally. It can help us frame our narrative with our local partners, with a government still struggling to reconcile its tensions on HE policy, and with an often sceptical wider public.

But the civic agenda is also one of those themes which can cut across traditional sector interest groups and ways of working, and it can bring us together within our institutions.

My own experience at Hallam is that “civic” finds common ground and enthusiasm across academic and professional colleagues almost more than any other theme. It also engages students in making a difference in their local communities.

If you’d like to find out more about the Civic University Network, you can register for our conference. Bookings close at 12:00 (BST) on Thursday 13 May 2021.

Richard Calvert is Deputy Vice-Chancellor at Sheffield Hallam University, and Chair of the Civic University Network Partner Group.