Ahead of a webinar event taking place on 9th May 2022 exploring the development of the civic agenda in Wales and Scotland, Professor Claire Taylor, Deputy Vice-Chancellor and Nina Ruddle, Head of Public Policy Engagement from Wrexham Glyndwr University, Ed Bridges, Public Affairs and Civic Mission Manager at Cardiff University, Professor Lesley McAra, Assistant Principal for Community Relations at Edinburgh University and Des McNulty, Honorary Fellow, Civic Partnership and Place Leadership at Glasgow University, reflect on the developing role of civic mission in higher education institutions in Scotland and Wales and the opportunities and challenges they face.

The role of universities in civic space

It is no surprise to anyone working in HE that universities do hugely important and impactful work in their communities – indeed, universities have been quietly getting on with doing that job for decades. But in recent times, packaging that role in terms of a ‘civic agenda’ has become an increasing expectation of different tiers of government – even if it hasn’t always been matched by government funding.

Inevitably, how that agenda is defined and shaped differs across the UK because of devolution, as does the way in which universities discuss it. Welsh dialogue focusses heavily on ‘civic mission’, Scotland reflects the priorities set out in the Scottish Government’s national performance framework together with local and national priorities such as the climate emergency and tackling child poverty, whilst English universities are responding to the government’s ‘levelling up’ agenda and asymmetrical devolution. But at its heart, the civic agenda sees universities in all three countries engaging with the societal issues facing their communities.

The Welsh context

The civic mission approach in Wales is driven by a unique set of policy and legislative instruments, particularly the Wellbeing of Future Generations Act and the Tertiary Education and Research (Wales) Bill. The former enshrines the rights of future generations alongside current generations in the work of public bodies, whilst the latter includes civic mission as one of nine strategic duties.

This has set a clear context for Welsh universities’ civic mission activities.

Wrexham Glyndwr University’s (WGU) Civic Mission Partnership strategy has been co-created by hundreds of leaders and practitioners in public services across North Wales. The aim was to begin not by looking at what the university can do, but by asking its partners how it can be useful and developing collaborations and approaches that responded to these needs.

As a small institute with a widening participation agenda, this enables WGU to be agile, responsive and really connected to its place because its students are largely from local communities.

WGU has set a bold ambition to end social inequality by 2030 by enabling collective action with a clear purpose. This has seen the development of a wide range of innovative projects and partnerships across North Wales including a leadership programme to create a community of systems leaders to enable the new ways of working being driven by the Future Generations Act to tackle key societal issues across the region collectively. This is being supported by the North Wales Public Service Lab, a physical and virtual space facilitated by WGU to bring leaders together to explore collective challenges.

At the other end of Wales, Cardiff University has focussed its civic mission work around three priorities: catalysing Wales’ green recovery, building Wales’ skills for the future and embracing community engagement. The university’s flagship project for 2022 supports all three of those strands: a ‘green social prescribing’ project in Cynon Valley has seen Cardiff University academics join forces with a local social enterprise and with healthcare professionals to refer people to nature-based activities – such as gardening or outdoor activities – bringing mental and physical benefits. The project is currently developing a nature trail based in a beautiful five-acre woodland and community garden, which will then host wellbeing activities, accredited learning and summer school for children aged five to 12. Working with the community, the partnership will develop a nature trail in Abercynon which will provide opportunities for GP referrals and community members to engage in nature-based activities to enhance their personal wellbeing.

The Scottish context

In Scotland, funding and policy arrangements for universities reflect the Scottish Government’s commitment to free (no tuition fees) entry to higher education for Scottish students and the stipulations built into university outcome agreements which amongst other things require institutions to meet targets to increase the proportions of undergraduates coming from areas affected by multiple deprivation. City Deals and the need to respond to the Covid pandemic have led to enhanced co-operation between universities and civic partners, while the Scottish Parliament has provided a range of opportunities for academics to contribute as experts to committee scrutiny.

Glasgow University has developed its civic mission in partnership with the City Council, contributing its expertise to economic development through the Commission for Economic Growth, chaired by the Principal and the climate emergency through Glasgow Green, its climate change strategy and action plan which details interventions the university is making on- and off-campus and its engagement on the £10 Million Gallant project, The Glasgow Riverside Innovation District links major investments being made by the University on its main campus with the regeneration of one of the most deprived areas of the city, taking advantage of Glasgow city deal infrastructure works including a new pedestrian bridge linking the north and south of the Clyde near the mouth of the Kelvin and the Govan location of the Queen Elizabeth University Hospital, one of the largest and most modern hospitals in Europe. Glasgow and Strathclyde Universities are working together to take forward an Innovation Accelerator which the UK government announced in the recent levelling up White Paper and in advancing the city-region economic strategy

The University of Glasgow has been closely involved in helping national and local government respond to Covid, setting up testing facilities, identifying the worst affected population groups and working with voluntary sector organisations, as well as with the City Council, to develop innovative support structures. Other strands of activity include work with the culture industry and arts institutions in the city, with the community planning partnership and in taking forward efforts within the city region to increase attainment levels e.g. through the Network for Social and Education Equity, improve population health e.g. through the Deep End project and tackle child poverty. A distinctive aspect of Glasgow’s approach has been the engagement and involvement of students in civic activity, much of it through projects managed by students themselves such as the Trusty Paws project which caters for the companion dogs of homeless people and DigiGallus Connect which helps connect older and vulnerable people to digital services, tackling exclusion and helping improve digital literacy.

The University of Edinburgh was established in 1583 by Edinburgh’s Town Council on a civic foundation. As such, we have always placed special importance on our relationship with the City, the wider region and its various communities. This is exemplified today through the University’s Strategy 2030, which puts social and civic responsibility at the forefront of our ambitions, and through the 32 commitments made in our Community Plan.

Civic engagement infuses core University agendas of research and innovation, life-long education and external engagement. It ranges from large-scale strategic initiatives (such as the University’s commitments to the Edinburgh and South East Scotland City Region Deal, predicated on data driven innovation in support of inclusive economic growth and community benefit), to staff and student-led projects (as for example Prescribe Culture, run through the University’s Museums, using cultural engagement to support well-being amongst groups at risk of exclusion, the student-led All4Paws veterinary service for the companion animals of people who are homeless, and the Free Legal Advice Service provided by students on the Diploma in Legal Practice), to community grant giving, support for volunteering and much more.

Fundamental to our approach is an emphasis on collaboration and co-production. Examples here include: the Data and Design Lab at the Edinburgh Futures Institute; the co-creative challenge-led approach developed by the UNICEF Data Collaborative for Children (a collaboration between the University, UNICEF and the Scottish Government); the newly established Binks Hub (which will work with communities to co-produce a programme of research and knowledge exchange that aims to promote social justice, relational research methods and human flourishing) and our Centre for Homelessness and Inclusion Health (a collaboration between the University and local partners supporting the health and well-being of people who experience homelessness) .

Engagement with the various Edinburgh Festivals is also integral to our civic commitments, with close involvement in the International Festival (recent examples include the Heart and Home Project in 2021 connecting local communities to explore the meaning of home, You are Here’s focus on place-making in 2019 and Refuge in 2022), the Book Festival (which is now hosted in the University), the Edinburgh Fringe (as for example the annual Cabaret of Dangerous Ideas, a collaboration across all four Universities in Edinburgh) and the Science Festival (which this year includes University led workshops for children on building vaccines, a guide to the mathematics of pizza and activities exploring good and bad bacteria, as well as exhibitions where Design Informatics masters students explore personal, local and global reliance on data through interactive installations).

Finally, we strongly value our collaboration with the University of Glasgow on a variety of community facing initiatives, including strengthening our commitment to widening participation, through our work with IntoUniversity and associated campuses in Craigmillar (Edinburgh) and Maryhill (Glasgow); as well as joint supervision of doctoral students which include projects on urban regeneration and design, and an evolving collaboration on public policy engagement.

The challenges

Whilst there is significant and ambitious work being led through Wales and Scotland around civic mission, there remain a number of challenges that need to be tackled if we are to realise the full potential of universities in the civic space. We will be exploring these challenges and barriers at our roundtable event on 9 May, but some of the key questions for discussion include:

  • How do we enable partnerships between smaller and larger institutions that are equitable and genuinely democratic?
  • How can universities work better together at city, city region or devolved nation level, finding common ground when in other contexts such as pursuing research funding we may be in direct competition with each other?
  • How can those involved in building collaborations with civic partners work together to create an environment that facilitates joint learning and knowledge sharing?
  • How can we engage partners and communities meaningfully into our research and innovation work so that it’s grounded in what matters most to our local, regional, national and community partners?
  • Should the civic agenda be wholly funded by R&D as it currently is in Wales, or does this create perverse incentives for how civic mission is delivered? Are there alternatives?
  • The civic agenda has attracted interest and support from Research England and it may attract funding from the UK Shared Prosperity Fund / Levelling Up Fund – but is there a risk that devolved universities might find themselves caught between devolved governments and the UK government?

We hope you will join the discussion on 9th May and look forward to hearing your thoughts on these questions and more!

Get involved, attend our event:

Civic missions and societal challenges: what does it mean in Wales and Scotland?

This event will provide universities engaged in civic work with an overview of the development of the civic agenda in Wales and Scotland, the place-based interpretation of policy and community collaboration, and the associated challenges and opportunities. The presentations and roundtable discussions will share learning and challenges from the two nations, discuss the most exciting developments and look at what the future holds.

Speakers include:

Professor Claire Taylor – Deputy Vice-Chancellor and Professor of Education, Wrexham Glyndŵr University

Professor Lesley McAra – Director of the Edinburgh Futures Institute and Assistant Principal Community Relation, University of Edinburgh

Des McNulty – Honorary Fellow, Civic Partnership and Place Leadership, University of Glasgow

Nina Ruddle – Head of Public Policy Engagement, Wrexham Glyndŵr

Ed Bridges – Public Affairs & Civic Mission Manager, Cardiff University

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