How university-led regeneration can lead the way to an integrated future

A growing number of UK universities are choosing to take a more active role in local regeneration initiatives and some are reaping rewards as a result. Despite their success, however, challenges remain when it comes to sharing best practice.

In many ways, universities are ideally placed, in the heart of urban communities, to take a more active role in promoting economic and social regeneration and influencing estates development strategies and spatial development plans. Instead of being seen as ‘ivory towers’ that are detached from the local community, universities are increasingly extending the reach of their teaching, learning and research resources in a way that delivers value to local people at the same time as supporting students and ensuring courses are relevant to the real world of work.

Most universities have charitable status and civic origins, which means that they can have a strong civic mission, underpinning their educational goals to instil learning and develop skills that are matched to the needs of employers. To fulfil this mission, they are actively seeking involvement in initiatives that are designed to support local communities for example, by creating learning or employment opportunities for individuals who might not otherwise have access to them or supporting regeneration projects that improve the built environment bringing benefits for local people and students alike. By giving back to local communities and promoting urban life, universities can ensure their proposition is more appealing to a wider group of prospective staff and students.

The idea of integration into the local community is a current focus across the HE sector. A recent inquiry launched by the Civic Universities Commission (CUC) is looking into various aspects about how civic universities operate today and the role they play in wider society, including their influence on the local economy and labour market, their role in driving economic growth and their evolving relationship with local government and other stakeholders.

Despite the focus on integration into the local community, student surveys show that campuses which offer a defined space for students to come together for tutorials and to socialise, remain popular with students and many universities are investing to enhance their own estates. Combining campus redevelopments with wider regeneration has the potential to maximise the impact on local communities. For example, in Manchester, the first city to host the CUC inquiry, the universities lie at the heart of a regeneration zone, which includes a new hospital and associated housing developments. The University of Manchester itself is also undergoing a major, 10-year regeneration programme, known as the Campus Masterplan, which represents one of the UK’s largest estates investments in the higher education sector.

While such examples are an inspiration, they may not be easy to replicate in other towns and cities, however. Manchester’s success is in part due to regional devolution, which has enabled local policymakers to take control of the city’s destiny and drive through its vision to regenerate the city’s built environment, ensuring it has a positive impact on the wider region too. This has provided an ideal platform for the regions’ universities to share and contribute their own ideas and initiatives. Elsewhere, university-led regeneration activity may stem from individual projects, such as the development of ‘The Hive’ at the University of Worcester, a jointly-funded library and resource centre for students and local people. Similarly, the University of Birmingham has recently constructed a new sports centre and 50m swimming pool, which is open to the community.

One outstanding example of a sustainable partnership that is delivering value to the local community is De Montfort University Leicester’s Square Mile initiative, which aims to put the skills, experience and talent on campus to good use in the local community. This award-winning initiative has proved so successful with students and communities alike that it has grown and evolved to support initiatives further afield, in India for example.

In the US, universities that are developing a more integrated role within their communities are often described as ‘communiversities’. Their aim is to deliver life-long learning to individuals that might have missed out on educational opportunities previously or would otherwise not have access to them. This approach is increasingly being adopted by institutions in the UK as they respond to the changing needs of employers, who require a skilled workforce to fulfil their future needs. There are benefits too for workers who are increasingly in flexible careers that might require them to re-train or up-skill throughout the working lives. While such initiatives can provide significant value, cultural differences can be a barrier to their delivery in the UK. This is because significant up-front funding is needed to ensure training opportunities are free at the point of use.

Before embarking on opportunities to integrate locally and sponsor local regeneration, universities should prioritise wider community consultation, beyond statutory requirements, to ensure any planned development will have a positive effect. It is also important to find the right model for collaboration, which is sustainable and supports the interests of all parties. When it comes to drawing up collaborative agreements, regardless of whether they relate to short-term projects or an ongoing programme of activity, it is essential to ensure there is a business plan in place, which specifies the shared objectives whilst setting out the expectations of each individual partner. It is also important to mitigate risk by ensuring there are pre-agreed exit terms, which can be put into motion when the project terminates or at an earlier stage if necessary.

Often the key to successful regeneration initiatives lies in effective communication. When the University of Manchester first launched The Works to encourage people from local housing estates in Ardwick and Moss Side to apply for on-campus jobs, progress was slow initially and few applicants came forward. The problem was that people in the local community had little knowledge of the jobs on offer and the skills required to do them. The university addressed this problem by organising an open day to explain the jobs and training opportunities available, at the same time as spreading the word at local events and community groups. Since then the number of applicants from disadvantaged areas of the city has increased.

There is also a need to communicate success more widely of course, so other higher education institutions can benefit from the knowledge of others and implement best practice. Currently, there is no established system for doing this, so individual universities must take responsibility for sharing information about their successful community and regeneration initiatives proactively. If every institution starts to think and behave in this way, the UK could become a global leader in university-led regeneration; delivering positive changes to local communities at home and abroad and attracting staff and students at the same time.

Smita Jamdar
Smita Jamdar is partner and education sector specialist at law firm, Shakespeare Martineau.


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