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London needs a civic heart

Baroness Deborah Bull CBE

Vice President & Vice Principal (London)

26 November 2019

Central London anchor institutions can be thought of as immobile, permanent, hierarchal. But a new generation is re-thinking openness and flexibility through community engagement and adding local value.

In the United States, they call them ‘Eds and Meds’. Here, we tend to talk about ‘anchor institutions’: universities (often with linked hospitals) that are committed to their locality as major employers, service deliverers, and long-term owners of significant real estate. The term, though often used, has no precise definition yet is commonly understood. Just as anchors provide stability in ever-changing waters, anchor institutions offer a firm grounding beneath the choppy waves of political and economic instability. With a long-term perspective that goes beyond the election cycle and with the impartiality inherent in an academic approach, central London’s universities provide valuable support to policymakers in tackling the city’s so-called ‘wicked problems’.

And yet anchor characteristics – immobility and permanence – can also be seen as inflexible and hierarchical, especially in an age when useful knowledge is frequently co-produced with the many stakeholder communities that surround the university. Higher education’s anchor institutions are revisiting the idea of the civic university as a better way of articulating their role in ensuring that cities – and the communities that live in them – thrive.

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Civic universities originally emerged to meet local skills shortages in 19th century Britain’s industrial cities. The 21st century has yet to agree on a shared definition for the new civic university, but Professor John Goddard, who has written extensively on the topic, suggests that it integrates teaching, research and engagement with the outside world such that each enhances the other. Research has socio-economic impact designed in from the start and teaching has strong community involvement. Most importantly, there is a soft, flexible boundary between the institution and society.

At King’s College London – not, in its origins, within the 19th century definition of ‘civic’ – we have set out our ambition to be a civic university at the heart of London, working in mutually beneficial partnerships to serve, support and sustain London while creating distinctive learning and research opportunities for students and staff. This commitment is embedded in education and research, manifest in the students we teach and the knowledge we create. Partnerships with the capital’s institutions and organisations – from the Black Cultural Archives to 10 Downing Street – support the city’s needs while helping students make the most of London as a living classroom. Researchers draw on the lived experience of Londoners to generate new knowledge to serve those people who are both its originators and beneficiaries. There is always mutual value: a powerful example is Project ReMAKE, which sees King’s students from the Dickson Poon School of Law mentor and support ex-offenders as they start their own businesses. Students learn about the challenges that prison leavers face while the entrepreneurs receive valuable advice and guidance.

Universities always contribute most effectively to a city’s wellbeing and success when they work in partnership. This means moving from the transactional relationships of the past (which were too often asymmetric) to becoming equal and active members of networks that bring together the many players with an interest in the locality and its communities. It also means proactively engaging by focusing not on what the institution can offer, but on local needs. At King’s, we consulted closely with the three central London boroughs in which we are based to identify those areas where we could, in partnership, achieve the greatest impact. For each of London’s universities, this will be a different conversation.

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This shift from the transactional to the collaborative is mirrored in the corporate sector by the move from Corporate Social Responsibility to Shared Value. As defined by Michael Porter and Mark Kramer in 2011, Shared Value is ‘a set of policies and operating practices that enhance the competitiveness of a company while simultaneously advancing the economic and social conditions in the community in which it operates’.

A university-based example of this might be Parent Power, a partnership with Citizens UK and King’s College London that supports parents in south London with no experience of tertiary education in understanding the system and learning how to give their kids the best chance of getting in to university. The programme creates some economic value for the university (in that new students enrol) but it also creates value for local communities by improving progression rates into higher education and increasing social mobility. Individual programmes like this are a microcosm of the university as a whole, whose core purpose is to deliver a social good, not only through education and research but also through organisational practices and behaviours, procurement, sustainability policies, and integrated galleries, museums or public spaces.

In the light of this evolving relationship between the university and its locality, the anchor metaphor feels less and less appropriate. Universities are moving away from the safe harbour of inclusivity – ‘we’re open, come on in’ – in order to go out into communities to identify collectively how local needs can be met in ways that create genuinely symbiotic value. Nor does the anchor concept satisfactorily capture the value of the connections between London’s 40-plus higher education institutions. The image of a chain, tethered in one place yet linked to many more, might be more apt. Universities are a central but by no means singular element in an evolving ecology of information and ideas: interconnected, interdependent and stronger in partnership. They will contribute most effectively to London’s vitality if they work together to address its challenges and opportunities.


This piece originally featured in Centre for London's magazine, London ideas, available to read here.


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