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‘Our universities belong to the communities they sprang from in the first place’ - Norwich vice-chancellor on town and gown debate

PUBLISHED: 13:56 03 July 2018 | UPDATED: 12:09 16 July 2018

Professor John Last, vice-chancellor of Norwich University of the Arts. Picture: Denisa Ilie

Professor John Last, vice-chancellor of Norwich University of the Arts. Picture: Denisa Ilie

Denisa ILIE

The 21st century story of town and gown is one of point and counter-point.

Universities are independent and international in their outlook, yet rooted in a place and its civic, social, economic and cultural infrastructure.

Communities want their universities to be agents of social mobility for young people locally; universities seek to recruit the best talent wherever it can be found, however close or far from home.

And while graduates emerge from three years of study with sought-after skills and high ambition, the perennial local question – a good question - is how many will stay and make their living here?

However, the old idea of ‘town and gown’ in a singular sense misses a key point of the 21st century story of higher education.

There is often more than one ‘gown’ in a city – more than one university. Rail passengers are greeted with a sign at Cambridge station telling them they have arrived at ‘the home of Anglia Ruskin University’, for example. And Norwich has two universities with distinctive characters and missions.

The University of East Anglia (UEA), a comprehensive university founded in 1963, has developed an international reputation in the fields of climate change science and creative writing. Norwich University of the Arts (NUA) is a specialist creative arts institution granted university title in 2012, but with a heritage as one of the first British art schools dating back to 1845.

So, what does the civic role of two distinct universities in one city entail?

How do the universities interact with their communities – and each other?

What expectations should residents have of their universities?

These are among the good questions being posed about the mission of higher education by the UPP Foundation’s Civic University Commission.

The results of the commission’s YouGov survey of residents of a number of university cities paints interest context to these questions.

The survey of people living in 10 English university cities revealed Norwich residents as the most proud of their local universities compared to their peers in Birmingham, Bradford, Brighton and Hove, Manchester, Newcastle upon Tyne, Nottingham, Plymouth, Wolverhampton and Sheffield.

Seventy one per cent of respondents in Norwich said they felt proud of their universities. Only 3pc disagreed - the lowest score for the 10 cities surveyed. The average for the 10 university cities was 58pc and 7pc, respectively.

Norwich topped the table too for the number of people who have visited their local universities within the past year (59pc), and the smallest proportion never to have done so (11pc). If universities are sometimes cast as remote, distant or ‘elite’, this is not the prevailing view in Norwich.

As vice-chancellors of the city’s universities we see it as part of our mission to act as enablers for our community through the advancement of knowledge, the diffusion and extension of arts, sciences and learning, and the provision of liberal, professional and technological education. Our universities belong not to us, we are just custodians, but to the communities they sprang from in the first place.

We draw both heart and inspiration from the knowledge that the citizens of Norwich not only think our universities bring real benefits to them in the shape of research that helps solve local and global problems but also that our biggest responsibility is to help inspire children to think about their futures and stay in education. Our civic responsibility to our communities is not lost on us. After all, Norwich had the second lowest social mobility in England in the 2016 Social Mobility Index.

That is why Norwich‘s universities are working alongside Anglia Ruskin University, the University of Cambridge and the University of Suffolk, and in close partnership with the region’s further education colleges, with a £9m budget shared through the Network for East Anglian Collaborative Outreach, to support and encourage school children to stay in education and improve their life skills and chances.

Universities should help people in their communities to aspire to think about their futures and to use education to help them achieve their fullest potential. We are determined to do so. Our community expects nothing less.

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