Civic universities are actively working to support their local communities, cities and towns overcome the long-term social and economic challenges brought about by Covid-19. Professor Jane Robinson, Dean of Engagement and Place at Newcastle University, thinks that now, more than ever, universities and their cities need to work together to secure the nation’s recovery and future prosperity. Today’s roundtable discussion between members of the Civic University Network and Core Cities UK is an important step in the right direction.

Despite the unparalleled challenges of the global health emergency brought about by Covid-19, universities have been quick to utilise their roles as anchor institutions in the areas they serve to provide expert support, world-leading research and physical assets in support of local and regional responses to the pandemic.

Universities are well known for, and well placed to support their communities, especially in regions with a history of economic and social disadvantage. But, much like our response to the pandemic, we can best serve society and deliver for our own institutions by working in partnership and sharing best practice. This is something that universities have long recognised, and for which we now have a standard-bearer in the form of the Civic University Network. The establishment of the Network was a key recommendation of the UPP Foundation Civic University Commission’s independent inquiry into the future of civic universities. Its launch, in March, just as the true scale of the pandemic in the UK was becoming apparent, could not have been more timely and Newcastle is very proud to be one of the founding partner institutions. Even in its infancy, the Network is proving to be an important vehicle for ensuring universities across the country continue to drive forward positive change working with local partners and communities at a time when it is needed more than ever before.

We know that city centres have been hit hard by covid restrictions, but cities remain critical to our economic recovery. There is huge potential for the Civic University Network and Core Cities UK to work together to drive innovation and economic growth, now and in the future. The eleven Core Cities city regions are home to 20 million people and host almost 40% of UK university students. The concentration of assets, business, skills and institutions located within their urban cores make them drivers of regional economies and society, delivering almost 26% of the UK economy. Building links between Core Cities and the Civic University Network, leading and working with universities to develop their own Civic University Agreements, will enable them to deliver even more economic and social good for their place.

Sharing best practice through the Civic University Network Digital Platform would also facilitate collaboration and offer support for network members with the design and implementation of their plans for their places. This is not just about cities, but our wider regions too – we must continue to recognise that towns and rural communities are not economic islands. Like the North East, our towns and villages are all linked, so what benefits the City of Newcastle also benefits the region and our surrounding areas.

We also hope to be able to build our capacity and capability to share data and intelligence, developing a deeper understanding of the interplay between health, social, environmental and economic drivers to inform policy and practice and to understand and measure impact. Crucially, such a partnership would also demonstrate the importance of cities, universities and their places, especially in ways that align and contribute to government objectives. Joint work on specific areas of joint interest, such as the ‘net zero’ agenda, would also be hugely beneficial.

Our cities have undoubtedly changed as a result of this pandemic. Whether it be R&D and business growth, skills and employment, or place making and civic engagement, we now find ourselves at a precarious moment in time. However, the road ahead is not paved only with challenges, but also opportunities to deliver more inclusive and sustainable growth. By working in partnership, the Civic University Network and Core Cities can help focus government attention and ensure the unique relationship between our cities and universities remains one of our country’s greatest strengths.

Jane Robinson, September 2020

Professor Jane Robinson is the Dean of Engagement and Place at University and a member of the Civic University Network Partners group

Follow on Twitter @janeerobinson97