Universities have a vital role to play in broadening, deepening, and focusing the debate on what kind of economy and society should emerge from the Covid-19 crisis. But how can universities help in the ambition to build back better? And how might we measure this? In the latest Civic University Network blog, Dr Julian Dobson and Professor Ed Ferrari discusses this topic further.

The Civic University Network recently convened a workshop to explore the challenge of finding meaningful indicators of the value and impact of their civic activity. Here we want to share some initial thoughts, which we expand on in the new Civic University Members’ Area.

What is ‘civic’…?

 The Civic University Commission proposed four tests for a civic university:

  • Public – can we talk about our university with pride and awareness? Are the views of local people reflected in governance and strategies?
  • Place – how well is teaching aligned with the labour market? Which populations does the university serve?
  • Strategy – can the university define its geography and civic boundaries, and demonstrate links with local leadership?
  • Impact – can the university measure the effects of its activity? Has it considered how it works with other local institutions to maximise its impact?

To effectively contribute to a post-Covid reconstruction, civic universities need to articulate their ‘civicness’ as a modus operandi for future action. The civic mission should stimulate broader learning between institutions, a raised ambition for impact, and a deeper understanding of public benefit and public accountability.

This inevitably raises the challenge of how to measure ‘civicness’. The Civic University Network has been considering the idea of a ‘civic index’, and we explored this at our workshop.

Emerging thinking

The workshop highlighted the need to capture a narrative as well as numbers, telling a story of their roles in the places they serve. It is important, too, to recognise that this is emerging alongside the Knowledge Exchange Framework (KEF). There is scope for a two-way conversation between the development of the KEF and the evolution of civic universities.

Participants highlighted the need to have a strong community voice in developing any index, but also to support communities to have a voice where they are not currently engaged with their local universities.

From the discussions several key issues emerged:

The purpose of civic engagement: what difference do universities wish to make and how do they expect such change to be achieved?

Power dynamics and accountabilities: How will HEIs be held to account on civic engagement and turn their promises into action?

Land and buildings: How can universities offer their facilities to support civic activities?

Academic engagement: How can we better understand of the totality of universities’ civic links, including the ‘below the radar’ engagement of staff and students?

Learning from elsewhere: How can we best learn from international practice, such as the network of Land Grant Universities in the US or the Talloires Network of Engaged Universities?

We are working on taking these ideas forward  to help shape a proposal for a civic index and approach to peer learning.

To read the full report you can sign up free to our Member’s area

For further information, please contact

  • Ed Ferrari, director, CRESR, Sheffield Hallam University e.ferrari@shu.ac.uk
  • Julian Dobson, senior research fellow, CRESR, Sheffield Hallam University: julian.dobson@shu.ac.uk