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Acting locally: universities reconnecting with communities

24 March 2017
Greg Wade

Greg Wade

Policy Manager
Universities UK

Photo: http://blogsession.co.uk

Over the past nine months, following the EU referendum result and the launch of the government’s eagerly-anticipated industrial strategy, we have been told repeatedly about the need to reconnect with communities in all corners of the country.

During this same period – and with little fanfare – a reasonably straight forward and modest scheme called Leading Places was launched. Funded by the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE), run in partnership with Universities UK and the Local Government Association and facilitated by the Leadership Foundation, the scheme aims to bring leaders of local councils, universities and other partners in England closer together to address the economic and social concerns of their local area.

We are coming to the end of the first phase of the six pilots in England, which has involved 11 universities across five cities and two counties (Brighton, Bristol, Coventry, Gloucestershire Manchester, Newcastle and Warwickshire). The pilots have covered a range of issues, from public health & wellbeing to making the most of a town or city Mayor.

The scheme aims to respond to the growing emphasis on bringing the policy focus back to what matters to local people, rather than some nationwide (or European-level) idea which can often end up being less relevant to that community. The Leading Places scheme shows that universities are perfectly positioned to play their part in this new approach to public policy in England.

All six pilot projects will be sharing their outcomes at a free-to-attend seminar on 28 March at Universities UK and there are still a few places if anyone would like to attend. To give you a flavour of what is being discussed, I’ll outline what’s been happening in the Brighton pilot. What started out as an intention to strengthen the relationship between Brighton & Hove City Council and the University of Brighton and University of Sussex, has turned into something incredibly wide-ranging.

According to colleagues, engagement between the City Council and the two universities was always a bit ad-hoc. Over the past year, however, the two universities have become increasingly engaged with the council – to the extent that they are now involved in the governance of the city region.

The focus was originally on caring for the elderly which, among other things, involved students advising the elderly on issues such as medicine management and care techniques. The project has gone way beyond that in such a short space of time, with the Council now drawing on the range of expertise within the two universities – covering traffic management, health & social care and the environment.

Universities are always looking to make sure that what they deliver on campus meets the needs of students, the local area and its employers. The Leading Places scheme has helped here too. According the University of Brighton, they train nearly 5,000 allied health professionals every year. By working more closely with the City Council, they now have up-to-date information on what the issues are in the city, which has informed what’s taught in the classroom.

What made the difference in all of this? I think that one of the key factors was a proper dialogue between the people at the top of the organisations involved. Without this ‘buy-in’, I’m not sure it would have worked to the extent it has.

The Leading Places scheme has shown just how communities can benefit when universities, councils and other partners work together on projects aligned with the priorities of the local area.  It is exactly the kind of initiative the government should support as it develops its plans for English devolution, the industrial strategy and Brexit, among other things.

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