Written by Sarah Barnes, Queen Mary University of London

On Tuesday 9th March we brought together staff from London universities who are interested in the civic agenda to discuss what it means to be a civic university in London. With more than 40 universities in the City, we wanted to break down barriers and identify opportunities for collaboration.

Setting the scene

Professor Wendy Thomson, Vice Chancellor of the University of London, gave the first of our plenary sessions, drawing on her experience working in both local government and higher education. Reflecting on the fact that London has one of the highest concentrations of universities in the world, Wendy introduced London’s first ever city-wide Anchor Institutions Charter which was launched by the Mayor of London later that day. The charter will provide opportunities for closer working between the GLA and London’s academic researchers, with the University of London playing a brokering role.

Wendy presented some of the challenges we are facing, particularly related to the levelling up agenda, with London having the highest poverty rates in the country after housing costs are considered, with 2.5 million Londoners on low incomes. Wendy also highlighted the challenges faced by public services across the UK, reminding us that many have been hit hard by austerity measures. While Higher Education is also facing financial challenges, we need to bear in mind the difficult situations our partners are facing when we choose to engage with them.

Wendy presented some “perturbations” for us all:

Is ‘being civic’ embedded in the core mission and values of our institutions? Much like public engagement and knowledge exchange activities, embedding an internal culture of civic engagement needs to be backed up with support for staff to undertake this work. We can emphasise this with institutional cultures and processes that underpin our civic engagement, ensuring staff are recognised and valued for their time.

Are our university structures accessible and transparent? Many of us know how hard it is to find the right person to talk to in our institutions, but this problem is amplified when you’re an external organisation trying to find a way in. This is a huge challenge that we all face, and it may be interesting in future meetings to draw on examples of best practice in the sector.

Are we ready to support London’s recovery? This was a challenge for us all to consider what specific practical changes we can make, with a view to creating some shared priorities for us to work together and affect change in the city.

Telling London Stories

We were fortunate to also feature a workshop from Jim Collins, Director of London Strategy at King’s College London. Jim introduced us to King’s London Stories, examples of staff and students whose teaching, research and community partnerships support the delivery of King’s strategy – Vision 2029. To develop King’s civic ambitions, they have mapped local needs against King’s core strengths and identified areas where increased activity can add value.

In order to identify the stories and opportunities in each of King’s faculties, they have identified a “London Champion”. These champions help to surface existing activity and engage colleagues with new opportunities that align with academic interests, and report to the Academic Board, via a London Committee. Amplifying a point raised Wendy in her provocations, Jim highlighted that a key feature of success for this programme was embedding their work into the university governance processes.

Through discussions in breakout groups we discovered that our universities are certainly not ‘one size fits all’, but there were some common themes that we all drew on:

  • Origin stories – thinking back to how and why our institutions were founded
  • A sense of place – understanding our local areas within the city as a whole
  • The pull between local and global – how do we balance both
  • The stories of our students and their journeys.

We hope that these themes will be built on during future Forums, allowing us to continue grow our narrative.

You can find more about King’s London work here: https://www.kcl.ac.uk/london

The cultural perspective

Our second plenary of the morning was delivered by Sabine Unamun, Interim Director of London for Arts Council England, and with a specialist focus on museums and visual arts. At the beginning of 2020, Arts Council England published the Let’s Create strategy, a vision for creativity and culture for the next 10 years. Like many organisations, ACE are also focusing on place-making, identifying ”Priority Places” and working with local partners to deliver their goals. Sabine emphasised how committed ACE are to building more effective partnerships ith HEIs in London and across England.

Mapping our work

Diana Beech from London Higher introduced a new project thinking about what it means to be a civic university in London. The project will explore the role, scale and scope of civic activity that’s happening now across the city. This could be led by, or contributed to, by London-based higher education institutions, either individually or in collaboration with other universities or external partners. The aim of the exercise is to produce a high-level strategic map of London’s higher education sector’s civic activities that does justice to the range of activities that many of us are already undertaking, capturing the depth and breadth of strategic civic activities that institutions are leading on.

Although at this point we don’t know what the mapping or exercise is going to reveal, we hope that the resulting activity will inform institutions and policymakers about the range of activity that’s happening in the capital. Diana also raised the idea of “civic cold spots” – by undertaking this mapping we will be able to identify areas where little to no civic activity is happening.

To help London Higher get started, we have produced a Padlet to test the waters for this work, and we’d still appreciate any comments you have on the types of data that can be collected.

Our panel discussion

The final session of the morning brought together Wendy Thomson, Sabine Unamun and Baroness Deborah Bull from King’s College London. Our panelists built on the provocations and perturbations from early in the morning, with several key questions standing out:

  • What internal challenges do we need to overcome to embed civic activity in our institutions?
  • How do we move it from an activity led by a small team to an integrated institutional priority?
  • How do we make universities easier to speak to? From the outside, is it clear who you would speak to if you wanted to find out more about a university’s civic work?

The importance of brokering roles was also raised, something that will be familiar to many working in the civic or engagement spaces. Role that are able to bridge the gap between institutions and the huge range of public, cultural, voluntary and community organisations and opportunities that are available will remain vital long after Civic University agreement have been signed and published.

Moving forward

We’re currently looking forward to future London Forum events. If you have an idea or would like to propose a session, please get in touch! Email publicengagement@qmul.ac.uk