The Civic University: How should universities assess their economic impacts in a “civic age”?

Guest blog by Tim Fanning and David Marlow

If the Civic University Commission (CUC) Final Report is to genuinely change the type of impacts universities have on the places where they are located,  universities will need to be prepared to deliver impact studies and analyses in new, more explicitly civic and bespoke ways..

The role of the university economic and social impact study

Economic and social impact assessments have become an important part of the evidence base for universities. This reflects the increasing economic importance of universities to their local areas in many locations over time, as well as growing expectations on the sector to harness and demonstrate its wider socio-economic value.

Like the economic impact assessment that Hatch Regeneris undertook recently for Yorkshire Universities, these studies provide universities with a robust, independent baseline of their socio-economic footprint, as well as case studies of valuable activities. They are becoming an essential tool for external stakeholder communications.

That said, the baseline numbers (on jobs and GDP supported) alone do not capture the nuances and ‘difficult questions’ university footprints may raise for their host cities and communities. Most impact studies we see commissioned also often neglect to include forward-looking analysis that positions the university in its context to face the challenges of the future.

Together, Third Life Economics and Hatch Regeneris have been encouraging universities to take the opportunity to consider these more strategic issues, alongside the hard-edged modelling of their local economic linkages.

The Civic University Commission report: implications for impact studies

Indeed, some of these themes are very prominent in the new CUC report.

First, CUC recognise that a university can only claim to be truly civic if its impacts are underpinned by clear civic purposes and strategic intent. Second, they recommend capturing these purposes and intent in ‘Civic University Agreements’ with other key civic partners. Third, they suggest national incentives in performance measurement, funding, review and learning to support these agreements. Fourth, they recommend major changes in university behaviour, structures and processes to embed civic values and stronger community ownership of and affiliation with the institution – including new University Community Foundations.

A rigorous quantitative analysis of the university’s contributions to its host location will remain a core part of any university’s study on its economic impact, and is important for local leadership teams including LEPs and local government charged with agreeing and delivering place-based strategies. But the CUC study implies a number of opportunities to add value to the approach:

  • The CUC usefully suggest four ‘tests’ for a civic university – public, place, strategic and impact – each with 2-3 dimensions to explore. These provide a good starting point for a more deliberative impact exercise which will necessarily engage partners and local communities more intensively and qualitatively than hitherto.
  • More fundamentally, there is the opportunity to complement the “here and now” impact snapshot with a more dynamic, forward-looking analysis. For instance, in quantitative terms, what are the socio-economic and other trends telling us and what questions do they raise? Qualitatively, how effectively is the university assisting in determining and delivering their geography’s vision, ambitions, and priorities?

This opens up the possibility for these exercises to be codesigned, jointly commissioned and coproduced with partners and university neighbours. Not only that, but it will perhaps enable the central research questions to evolve too.

Instead of starting from the question: “what benefits do we bring to our local area?”, we could see a shift to: “what does our area need from us?”

For more information about civic universities and impact assessments contact Tim Fanning and David Marlow.




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