There is a growing interest in the idea of civic universities. It’s an idea which has a new resonance with many who believe its time for a reassessment of what a university is for(see my earlier blogs on From Green Academy to Ecological Universities and What is a University For?). I was particularly struck by what is currently happening in the Netherlands to make the connections between a university and its place. They argue that civic universities matter more than ever as “anchor institutions”. Whilst this is a poorly defined and loose term, universities are– alongside the NHS and local authorities –one of the key institutions in many places. They create wealth in a variety of ways, including through their direct spending on wages and local goods and services, and through their effects in the local economy. They play a critical role in an ageing and automated society in facilitating lifelong learning and will be crucial in helping to deal with both challenges especially in a post Corvid world. They also are increasingly involved in activity that makes life meaningful and pleasurable for local people: including education more broadly, and arts and culture.
In the case of the Netherlands the national policy agenda for Higher Education and Research identifies knowledge valorisation – the creation of economic and social value from knowledge and social benefit – as a key priority. The ambition is that by 2025, research universities and universities of applied sciences will form part of localised sustainable “ecosystems” alongside the secondary education sector, secondary vocational education, research institutes, government departments, local and regional authorities, companies, hospitals, community centres and sports clubs. Is this the dawn of the “Ecological University”, I wonder

The overall performance of universities’ contribution to this agenda is monitored through a process of Performance Agreements) – now called Quality Agreements . Funding can be withheld if the plans do not meet the criteria. The separate ministries with responsibility for higher education and for city development have recently announced joint funding for “city deals” specifically to support collaboration between universities and municipalities. Most Dutch universities and their municipalities are participating in the programme. I hope our new Minister of Higher Education is following the Dutch example?
The rationale for such an approach is clear. It is important for a city’s capacity for innovation that it has a strong relationship with knowledge institutes and that researchers, lecturers and students are involved in solving social problems. Not only to strengthen the problem-solving ability of the city, but also because it contributes to the training of the students of the future– who will contribute to shaping society – and gives them a better understanding of social issues. Using the society as a rich learning environment for students is therefore an important theme. The idea is that students formulate the relevant research questions together with researchers and the field (businesses, government, social institutions, citizens’ initiatives), carry out further research into urban problems and evaluate whether assumed problem-solving approaches are effective.
This idea is not a new one. A similar approach initiated in an agricultural college(Hawkesbury) in New South Wales directly tackled the inadequacies of the philosophies, theories and practices of reductionist science and technology. The Hawkesbury initiative shifted their educational approach from abstract and conceptual perspectives to ways of dealing directly with reality. The central thesis of the Hawkesbury approach is that, if there are to be new ways of farming developed which are more socially and environmentally responsible, then these will be predicated by the development of ‘new ways’ of thinking, knowing and learning.

Published by Steve Martin

Steve is a passionate advocate for learning for sustainability and has spent nearly 40 years facilitating and supporting organisations and governments in ways they can contribute towards a more sustainable future. Over the past 15 years he has been a sustainability change consultant for some of the largest FTSE100 companies and Government Agencies such as the Environment Agency and the Learning and Skills Council. He was formerly Director of Learning at Forum for the Future and has served as a trustee for WWF(UK). He is an Honorary Professor at the University of Worcester and President of the sustainability charity Change Agents UK. He is currently a member of the Access Forum for the Peak District National Park and is supporting the local district council on its Climate emergency programme.

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