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Proud to be a civic university

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Published on 12 February 2019

Sire David Bell KCB, Vice-Chancellor and Chief Executive
Sire David Bell KCB, Vice-Chancellor and Chief Executive

The University of Sunderland has reaffirmed its commitment to the city by pledging to prioritise its economy and quality of life.

Sunderland joins 30 other institutions in committing to produce a ‘Civic University Agreement’ in partnership with local government and other major organisations.

The new agreement is a key recommendation in a report published today (12 February) by the Civic University Commission. The commission was set up by the University Partnerships Programme (UPP) Foundation and chaired by the former Head of the Civil Service, Lord Kerslake.

The report sets out how universities like Sunderland have the capability, opportunity and responsibility to support the places where they are based, to solve some of their most pressing and major problems.

These issues range from helping regional software and advanced manufacturing business adapt to technological change, to boosting the health of local people, improving education for school pupils and adult learners, and training and developing new civic leaders in every field from politics to the arts.

The report aims to help universities to build on the excellent work that many, such as the University of Sunderland, are already carrying out in these areas, working alongside councils, employers, cultural institutions, schools and further education colleges.

Sir David Bell, Vice-Chancellor and Chief Executive of University of Sunderland, said: “Universities have an important role to play in a fair and democratic society. At the University of Sunderland we measure our success not just by awards and league table results, but by the contribution we make to society.

“The Civic University Commission’s report highlights the type of impactful initiatives that universities such as Sunderland are delivering - diligently and effectively. For those who benefit from these initiatives, civic universities are life-changing.

“In our evidence to the Commission we highlighted the University of Sunderland’s work to raise aspirations and widen participation in higher education; our collaboration with industry and our commitment to place shaping - benefitting the local population by improving Sunderland’s culture, economy and sense of civic pride.”

Lord Kerslake Permanent Secretary at the Department of Communities and Local Government, said: “The deep economic and social changes that are happening in Britain today have, alongside Brexit, made the civic role of universities even more vital to the places they are located in.

“The civic universities of the Victorian era were founded as expressions of civic pride, and as a way of sharing knowledge and opportunity at a time of rapid change.

“We are now entering a new industrial revolution when it will be even more vital that knowledge is accessible in as many communities as possible.

“It is not just people outside university grounds who will benefit. Universities are under unprecedented challenge and need to find a broader base of support. Universities need to be part of a community which is engaged, supportive and shares objectives.”

Lord Kerslake added: “Universities have an irreplaceable and unique role in helping their host communities thrive – and their own success is bound up with the success of the places that gave birth to them.”

Richard Brabner, director of the UPP Foundation, said: “Universities have the ability to make a real difference to the places they are located in through reinvigorating their civic role. But this is not just a responsibility, it’s also an opportunity.

“This is an important report with concrete recommendations that all universities will want to consider. The UPP Foundation created the commission to look at what it means to be a Civic University in the 21st Century and ask local people what they wanted from their local institution.

“We know that many universities want to build engagement with the community around them. It’s excellent news that such an impressive list of institutions has already signed up and the UPP Foundation strongly endorses the report’s findings.”

The report warns that there is a danger that any cut in the resources available to universities -  such as a reduction in student fees without the deficit being made up in funding from the Treasury - will mean that work already being done in this area could be slashed.

The report was based on evidence-gathering sessions held across England. The authors also commissioned opinion polling and focus groups in cities and towns to hear from the public what they wanted from their local university.

This research discovered communities welcome opportunities to connect with universities, and there is great local pride about how universities put their hometown on the map.

The report says that the Government needs to fundamentally review policies to support further civic engagement by universities. Until the recent creation of an industrial strategy, government has for many decades been too indifferent about places within the United Kingdom – contributing to some regions falling behind.

But universities can take a vital step at this pivotal time by adopting the Commission’s idea of a Civic University Agreement setting out what they will offer local communities and which major local strategic needs they will seek to address. All this needs to be based on listening to the local community.

The Civic University Agreement signed by 30 universities includes four key points:

  • Understanding local populations, and asking them what they want. Analysis of their place and people’s priorities are essential.
  • Understanding themselves and what they are able to offer.
  • Working with other local anchor institutions, businesses and community organisations to agree where the short, medium and long-term opportunities and problems lie for communities. Linking with local authorities and other local plans, such as the local industrial strategy is particularly important.
  • A clear set of priorities. A process of agreeing clear priorities will therefore be necessary and, again, this is where collaboration and aligning resources with local authorities, LEPs (Local Economic Partnerships), NHS bodies and the like can help to identify the live issues that universities can most usefully help with.

The full report can be downloaded here.


A new kind of Medical School

University of Sunderland’s School of Medicine will open in September 2019 and is one of only five new medical schools in the UK. In 2017 the Government committed to the largest ever increase in medical school places to address the regional imbalance of medical education and to widen access to ensure the profession reflects the communities it serves.

With its track-record of excellence in medical education spanning almost 100 years the University of Sunderland is well-placed to address the north east’s chronic shortage of doctors. Sunderland School of Medicine will complement existing medical provision in the region and add to the diversity of medical schools in the UK.

Student doctors will learn in existing Health Sciences teaching and learning spaces, benefiting from outstanding facilities, real-life settings and the latest simulation equipment. The north east has the lowest level of applicants for medicine at only 4%, and a high proportion of the region’s schools have never had a student apply to a medical school. The University of Sunderland is using its record for widening participation to increase access to medicine among high-achieving students who may not otherwise have considered becoming a doctor - ensuring the profession reflects the population it serves.

Trainee doctors are known to have a ‘halo’ effect on the economy, improving the health outcomes for residents and having a positive social effect where they learn and work. Evidence also suggests that doctors tend to remain in the areas where they trained, improving regional patient care.

Culture as a tool for regeneration in Sunderland

Over the past five years Sunderland has witnessed a significant period of culture-led regeneration, brought about by a unique partnership led by the University and involving Sunderland City Council and the business-led Music Arts and Culture Trust (MAC).

The partnership led in 2016 to the creation of a unique company – Sunderland Culture – which delivered the city of culture campaign in 2017 and the legacy project Sunderland Twenty-Four Seven – a £60m scheme to invest in cultural activity and infrastructure in the seven years to 2024.

The University believes its leadership of the culture-led revival and its own multi-million pound investment in cultural infrastructure – National Glass Centre, the Northern Gallery for Contemporary Art, the David Puttnam Media Centre, Hope Street Xchange, Northern Centre of Photography and the Priestman Gallery – will ultimately make Sunderland a more attractive destination for students and staff.

Arts leaders recently praised Sunderland for its innovative partnership approach to culture-led regeneration, pioneered by the University in the report following the Cultural Cities enquiry.  Sir Nicholas Serota, Chair, Arts Council England said: “Successful cities are those that create opportunities for people to earn their living, make friends, bring up families and engage in leisure and sport. Culture makes a vital contribution to these activities, while the creative industries are our fastest growing business sector.

“There are some remarkable examples of culture-led regeneration such as the partnership between the University of Sunderland, the local authority and private business which has created Sunderland Culture. In recent years partners have leveraged around £25m of investment in arts and culture infrastructure. It is transformational.”



Universities are proud of the places and communities we share. They have shaped us, and we have shaped them. These may be towns, cities or even whole regions; often rural. Some universities have been civic institutions for over a century, others are civic institutions that have only relatively recently become universities. But, as a sector, we are united by our commitment to delivering opportunity and prosperity to the people and communities with whom we share our place.

Universities have long worked to support social mobility; drive innovation and economic growth; and support the cultural strength of our communities. However, the profound economic and social changes that are happening across Britain today has made the civic role of universities even more vital. The time is right, therefore, for us to focus and strengthen our efforts. Universities must examine, with purpose and with rigour, how we should fulfil our civic missions in the future.

That is why we fully support the recommendation in the UPP Foundation Civic University Commission to establish a new approach – a Civic University Agreement.

As signatories of this statement we are pledging our universities to develop Civic University Agreements. The agreements will better align our priorities with those of our local partners.  Alongside schools, further education colleges, local authorities, charities, the NHS, civil society and businesses large and small, we want to make sure our place thrives in the coming decades.

This is not how government has recently thought about universities. As the cost of paying for a degree has shifted towards students, so too have policy, regulation and incentives increasingly emphasised the private benefit of a degree over universities’ public good. Whichever way universities are funded, we believe the public and private benefits from higher education must be developed together.

The long-term funding settlement for our sector will inevitably impact on what we can do and the extent to which we can do it. This includes our civic role. However, within that constraint this statement is a commitment from us, as autonomous institutions, to continue to serve the educational, economic and societal interests of our communities and our place. We will continue to embed our civic responsibilities into the core of what we do; be this research, education or knowledge exchange. We hope that funders recognise and continue to support this.

We will publish our Civic University Agreements publicly. As we develop them, we will be driven by the following principles:

  1. As place-based institutions we are committed to attaching a high-priority to the economic, social, environmental, and cultural life of our local communities.
  2. Our civic role will be informed by an evidence-based analysis of the needs of our place, developed collaboratively with local partners and informed by the voice of our local community.
  3. We will collaborate with other universities and anchor institutions and form partnerships to overcome the challenges facing our local communities.
  4. With our partners, we will be clear about what we do and how we measure it, so we can say with confidence what we have achieved – and how we might do better in the future.

As universities, we are responsible to our students and our staff, but we are also responsible to the places around us. Our Civic University Agreements will be an opportunity to set out clearly, coherent and creatively how we will fulfil that responsibility.



Professor Colin Bailey, President and Principal, Queen Mary University of London

Professor Liz Barnes, Vice-Chancellor and Chief Executive, Staffordshire University

Sir David Bell, Vice-Chancellor and Chief Executive, University of Sunderland

Professor Dame Janet Beer, Vice-Chancellor, University of Liverpool

Professor Paul Boyle CBE, President and Vice-Chancellor, University of Leicester

Professor Stuart Croft, Vice-Chancellor and President, University of Warwick

Professor Chris Day, Vice-Chancellor and President, Newcastle University

Professor Sir David Eastwood, Vice-Chancellor, University of Birmingham

Professor Graham Galbraith, Vice-Chancellor, University of Portsmouth

Professor David M A Green CBE, Vice-Chancellor and Chief Executive, University of Worcester

Professor Sir Chris Husbands, Vice-Chancellor, Sheffield Hallam University

Professor Koen Lamberts, President and Vice-Chancellor, University of Sheffield

Professor John Latham, Vice-Chancellor, Coventry University

Professor Geoff Layer, Vice-Chancellor, University of Wolverhampton

Professor Susan Lea, Vice-Chancellor, University of Hull

Patrick Loughrey, Warden, Goldsmiths, University of London

Professor Helen Marshall, Vice-Chancellor, University of Salford

Professor Quintin McKellar CBE, Vice-Chancellor, University of Hertfordshire

Professor Trevor McMillan, Vice-Chancellor, Keele University

Professor Kathryn Mitchell, Vice-Chancellor and Chief Executive, University of Derby

Professor Sir Anton Muscatelli, Principal and Vice-Chancellor, University of Glasgow

Professor Paddy Nixon, Vice-Chancellor and President, Ulster University

Professor Nick Petford, Vice-Chancellor, University of Northampton

Professor Judith Petts CBE, Vice-Chancellor, University of Plymouth

Professor Colin Riordan, President and Vice-Chancellor, Cardiff University

Professor Mark E. Smith, Vice-Chancellor, Lancaster University

Professor Mary Stuart, Vice-Chancellor, University of Lincoln

Professor Adam Tickell, Vice-Chancellor, University of Sussex

Professor Shearer West, Vice-Chancellor and President, University of Nottingham

Professor Steven West CBE, Vice-Chancellor, President and Chief Executive Officer,

University of the West of England