A key recommendation of the UPP Foundation Civic University Commission was that universities should embark on creating Civic University Agreements – a civic strategy, rooted in a robust and shared analysis of local needs and opportunities, an co-created with local partners.

So far nearly 60 HE leaders have committed to preparing such agreements, and a number are already completed. This section is based upon the 2019 Guide to Creating Civic Agreements. It provides practical tips and guidance, based on the work of HEIs already embarked on the process. This section is just a snippet of the wealth of additional resources and case studies provided on the Civic University Network Members’ Area. These resources are free and easily accessible by clicking below.

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1. What is a civic university agreement?

The origin of the idea…

The CU Commission spent a year taking evidence and visiting cities. Every university the Commission visited and received evidence from were able to give a long list of projects that were worthy and undoubtedly contributed to a civic role. In every institution, there are people who are passionate about civic engagement and the development of the locality.

What was much rarer was to see evidence of civic strategy – backed by rigorous analysis of local needs and opportunities, ambitious objectives and a clearly articulated plan that made place based civic engagement a core part of the university’s mission. This finding led the Commission to recommend the creation of Civic University Agreements (CUA).

“We believe CUAs should provide a clear strategy, rooted in a robust and shared analysis of local needs and opportunities.”


The Four Principles

The report identified four principles that should underpin an agreement. These were also set out in the statement signed by the leaders of the universities which have pledged to develop Civic University Agreements:

2. Getting started on a civic university agreement

In 2019 a short consultation with universities working on civic agreements was undertaken by the University of Newcastle and the National Coordinating Centre for Public Engagement. The consultation included interviews and responses to an online survey completed by 30 institutions. Respondents to the consultation articulated three rationales for preparing CUAs:

  • The turbulent political and policy environment mean CUAs are important as a tool to strategically prioritise a civic role.
  • Building on what, at present, might be ‘informal agreements’ between institutions and stakeholders.
  • A mechanism for self-assessment and peer evaluation to hold the institution to account in terms of reaching different outcomes (but not driven by metrics).

From this consultation, we now have a better understanding of the common issues and questions universities are grappling with. Five issues emerged as being particularly worthy of attention as you embark on developing a civic strategy or civic agreement:

  • Local public voices should be at the heart of your Agreement
  • Be clear about the role of the university in the partnership
  • Be clear about the geography
  • Identify required resource, leadership and institutional capacity
  • Recognise and manage the risks

To find out more about the policy context for Civic Universities, you can read our Briefing Paper: Civic policy 2020

At the time of the launch of the UPP Foundation Civic University Commission, focus groups and a poll in ten cities were conducted to gain a deeper understand of the public’s views on the universities in their cities. While the general picture was positive, there were stark differences between ABC1 people and C2DE people, with the wealthier population having a more positive view of their local universities. The results also saw major differences between places.

In large metropolitan cities that are succeeding economically the view was generally more positive towards universities than in places which were smaller or economically depressed. The public also had clear views on the responsibilities of universities locally, with ‘the impact the university ought to have on local pupils’ and ‘ensuring that ideas and discoveries have local impact’ coming out strongly.

The Commission concluded that the ‘public test’ was key to being able to identify as a civic university. It asked:

  • Can people talk about ‘our university’ with pride and awareness?
  • Is civic activity aligned to public wants?
  • Are the views of local people reflected in either the formal governance or informal and communications structures and strategies of the university, including with regards to the progress against the goals of the Civic University Agreement?

There are important lessons from the public opinion work conducted by the Commission. This suggests that a similar exercise could inform the development of your CUA. Other factors to consider include the following:

Broadly speaking there are four stakeholder groups that need to be engaged from the start of the consultation and co-creation stage: staff; students; the public and the other civic organisations (this list is not exhaustive but for example, NHS, Local Government, employers, civil society, LEPs, FE and Schools) in your place.

Universities tend to be successful at engaging empowered people locally but can find it more difficult to engage with lower socio-economic groups, people who have engaged in fewer educational opportunities and those from disadvantaged places. For your CUA to be transformative, seeking understanding and acting on the views of disadvantaged and disempowered people is important.

The university is often one of the largest and most dominant institutions in its place. This strength, harnessed correctly, can be used for significant good. But it is also worth reflecting on the power dynamics of local partnerships and how to foster successful collaborations with organisations that do not have the resources or agency of a university (particularly relevant for partnerships with civil society, small businesses and grassroots bodies). Building trust is important and challenging.

The Lankelly Chase Foundation has developed 9 behaviours that help systems function better for people facing severe and multiple disadvantage. These behaviours are focused on ‘perspective’, ‘power’ and ‘participation’ and are worth considering when reflecting on the role of the university in local partnerships.

More specifically our interviewees identified the following points about the place of the university in the partnership:

  • The university as a broker, intermediary or ‘critical friend’ – not necessarily as the central actor of the Agreement – moving away from a purely university centred approach.
  • The Agreement should be more about the university doing ‘with’ people, rather than ‘to’ people.
  • The Agreement should be able to embrace different types and levels of partnerships (networking > collaboration > integration).
  • Identify the key assets and strengths of partners to find common ground and facilitate workable synergies.
  • Working with schools, other local universities and colleges to develop a local education system that meets the needs of all ages and supports progression and lifelong learning.
  • This process may be an opportunity to improve relationships with civic partners, but we recognise that the identity of the right partners with which to co-create and co-sign the Agreement will be different in different places.”

During the Commission’s evidence sessions, all expert witnesses were asked ‘how would you describe a civic university to someone on the bus?’ Every single witness related their answer to the local community. This evidence underlines the fact that ‘Place’ is the defining feature of a civic university. However, geographical boundaries are not always easy to define. Unlike many public bodies universities do not operate within a defined geography. A key question the CUC report asked was, what population is the university serving? How local, and how diverse (including in terms of age, gender, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation)? The consultation exercise found that there can be two broadly different approaches to how institutions are conceptualising the geographies of their agreements:

  • Soft boundaries: An open and flexible approach based on retaining a local focus but not wanting to limit or exclude activity based on an identifying hard delineation around civic engagements.
  • Hard boundaries: This is much more of a ‘laying out our territory’ approach based on having a clearly defined geography. This is often linked to the geographies of existing partners and institutional/governance structures (e.g. Local enterprise Partnerships (LEP), Combined Authorities).

When deciding the geographies of the agreements other factors to reflect upon are:

  • Address possible tensions between maintaining a global/international image while at the same time engaging locally. Local/global isn’t an either/or but needs to be balanced appropriately.
  • Think regionally – it might be appropriate for your CUA to focus on your immediate place, but there may be towns or rural areas in your region where you are the nearest university and where you can make a tangible impact.

Universities are entering a challenging external environment. At this stage we are unclear of the impact of the government’s review into post-18 education and funding, and the potential impact of Brexit. These factors, coupled with rising costs such as pensions, lead us to believe that resources are likely to be constrained. This environment makes CUAs even more important as they are a tool to strategically prioritise your civic role.

As you prepare your agreement there are two broadly different, but not necessarily mutually exclusive, approaches in terms of structuring and resourcing civic engagement that have been adopted by universities:

  • Formal: Central units with a recognised institutional role and systemic approach in terms of process and capacity building.
  • Informal: Decentralised, which spread civic engagement throughout units/departments ‘get everyone involved’, letting it happen naturally and which might make it more embedded and sustainable.

When determining the resources you need for preparing and implementing your agreement, we suggest considering the following:

  • How your institution incentivises strategic civic engagement through the annual budget round, staff performance management and engagement with the Students’ Union.
  • How to link up ‘top-down’ and ‘bottom-up’ approaches to civic engagement. Academics may have individual connections with the local community, but this might not be recognised or align with wider institutional priorities.

This suggests a need to provide support around how to develop more structured civic engagement processes. This implies the need to invest in catalysing culture change throughout the university, normalising the importance of civic engagement as part of university life, enhancing the civic activism that is already occurring and maximising the outcomes. This can involve permission for staff to engage in activities which do not immediately impact on performance metrics.

As with any new strategic engagement initiative, poorly designed and executed CUAs could pose risks to institutional reputations and the civic university movement as a whole.

The consultation exercise identified a series of risks to manage as you prepare and implement your agreement:

  • How to keep the momentum, relationships and institutional knowledge when people move on.
  • Managing the relationships with and expectations of stakeholders and partners (conflicting time scales, priorities, accountabilities).
  • Lack of clarity around time-scales: the agreement, action plans, and annual reviews.
  • Defining the added value of civic agreements so that they are not just relabelling existing activity.
  • Learning from best practice elsewhere but also failures – why they did not work and how to avoid similar scenarios

3. A step by step guide and resource bank

Practical steps: eight steps to creating an agreement

How Civic University Agreements are developed will vary from place to place. In some cases, HEIs might initiate the process, and work with partners to explore how such an agreement might add value locally. In others, existing partnership frameworks and plans might already be in place or in development, in which case the Agreement would be a university contribution to this broader endeavour. The core principle is that Civic University Agreements should be jointly owned and valued. Before embarking on the process, informal conversation and discussion is vital to establish what might work best in your context.

Whatever the approach, there will be a series of activities and steps to ensure that the Agreement is fit for purpose. The typical steps people work through are listed below. Our Guide to Creating Civic Agreements explores each of these steps in more detail