How Does a University Benefit its Local Community?

Mike Shore-Nye is Registrar and Secretary at the University of Exeter. In the first part of this two-part blog, he reflects on the feedback they received from their local community as part of a project to create a new Community Engagement Strategy.

“How does it really benefit me having a university in my city?”

“What does the University actually contribute to the surrounding region?”

These were just two of the challenging and thought-provoking questions asked by members of our community at a recent feedback session. This was something we had organised to help us create a new Community Engagement Strategy for the University of Exeter.

Our plan to create this strategy couldn’t have come at a more fortuitous time, as the sector debates the civic role of universities. This follows a year of intense scrutiny and criticism in the media about the role and purpose of Universities across the nation. The topicality of our work is further reinforced by the launch of the Civic University Commission in March which is examining just what is meant by the term ‘civic university’ in the 21st Century.

A degree of pride

Here at Exeter we can feel a degree of pride when we honestly appraise our performance over the past few years as a civic university, and I think that we have much to celebrate.

The institution’s positive economic benefit to the region is widely celebrated. A recent Economic Impact Assessment has clearly demonstrated the contribution the University makes to the local economy, both in terms of GVA and employment. (In Devon, £378.3m contribution to local gross value added and 6,505 FTE jobs; in Cornwall, £42.6m contribution to local gross value added and 853 FTE jobs.)

Our staff and students also make a hugely significant positive contribution to the region through their support of local schools, community events and volunteering. For example, there are currently over 70 different student volunteering projects running in the community.

Not all good news

However, it is not all good news. The last few years have sometimes been challenging for community relations in Exeter. This is largely due to the growth in our student numbers and our plans for large scale infrastructural developments across our campuses. This has led to an increased appetite locally and politically for high level engagement between the University and community leaders. It also requires more public information about the University’s contribution to Devon and Cornwall, and about our future plans.

We are not starting from scratch in developing our approach to solving these issues. Our existing Community Engagement Plan, which we developed in conjunction with our Students’ Guild, has been in place for three years. The existing plan was originally developed with the overarching aim of developing and improving our engagement with communities and enhancing the attitude of good citizenship amongst our students. However, we must admit to have become very operational and focussed in our approach on the recurring topics that all University towns and cities struggle with: rubbish, parking and noise!

Our ambition for our role

These are, of course, really important matters for many of our neighbours and we have to get them right. But following an extensive consultation with staff, students and external stakeholders, it was clear that everyone’s ambition for our role as a civic university reaches far beyond this remit.

In the second part of this two-part blog, Mike discusses the core aspects of this far-reaching vision.