Image of university students celebrating
Think locally, study globally. Photo ©

Keith Luke on Unsplash, used under licence and adapted from the original.

March 2019

UK universities are global players with local responsibilities. Insight looks at the tensions this can cause and what they can and are doing to alleviate them, for the benefit of their local communities and the UK as a whole. 

A Global Success

The University of Nottingham and the UPP Foundation Civic University Commission recently published a report exploring the civic role of universities, and arguing that this is more important than ever for securing a successful future for the UK’s cities, towns and communities. 

UK universities are a huge success story for the country and a vital sector as it seeks to build on its status as a Global Britain after Brexit. They dominate the international rankings, with some showing four of the top ten universities in the world being based in the UK. Their economic value to the country is high and growing

This must be right. UK universities are a huge success story for the country and a vital sector as it seeks to build on its status as a Global Britain after Brexit. They dominate the international rankings, with some showing four of the top ten universities in the world being based in the UK. Their economic value to the country is high and growing, particularly as the number of international students has risen from around 50,000 to around 500,000 in the last couple of decades, making the UK the world’s second most popular study destination, and bringing in around £20bn a year to the British economy, as well as significant if less tangible soft power benefits. In many places, universities also provide major economic anchors for their towns or cities. As the report says, universities are not only major employers; they also attract talent, do valuable research, and offer a wealth of culture and intellectual capital. They make it not just possible for people to live and work in a particular place, but desirable to do so.

Benefitting Their Communities?

Despite this, universities sometimes face criticism for being too focussed on their international standing, and more interested in their global networks than their local communities. In the main globalisation has benefitted universities – even in towns and cities where many people feel left behind – meaning that universities are at the heart of the tensions many have identified between the international and the local - the ‘global elite’ and the ‘citizens of somewhere’. This raises questions about whether universities have lost touch with the people around them. As more than 50% of young people go to university and many will make a significant contribution to the costs themselves (as well as receiving a significant subsidy from the taxpayer), political scrutiny has increased, and universities must now work harder to demonstrate their value.

Universities are at the heart of the tensions many have identified between the international and the local - the ‘global elite’ and the ‘citizens of somewhere’

In doing so, it is hoped that they will not seek to choose between their international activity and their civic activity, but rather use - and explain that they are using - their extensive international connections to benefit their home town, city, or region. 

First there are students. On average, international students make up roughly 20% of the student body – although this varies across the sector with some universities (such as University of Buckingham, London School of Economics and St Andrews) taking as many as a third of their undergraduates from overseas. This exposes domestic students to other cultures, perhaps inspiring a desire for UK students to study or work overseas, or providing an opportunity for students not able to travel to develop the international outlook valued by so many employers. It also represents a tremendous resource for local businesses. The University of Sheffield, for example, places its Chinese students in small local businesses to help them export to China. When international students return home and set up businesses, they often think of the UK first when looking for trading partners, because they are familiar with its language and culture, and know people they can trust.

Then there is research. Around the world people are struggling with the same challenges: disease, population growth, aging and pollution, to name but a few. At the same time they are grappling with the opportunities of technology such as driving productivity through artificial intelligence, using genetics to personalise medicine, using big data to make smart cities – and managing the impact on people of rapid change. Universities can work with international partners to develop ideas that make life easier for everyone everywhere – including at home.

Universities can also create bridges between cultures. The University of Nottingham, for example, has campuses in China and Malaysia. It uses these to connect businesses – including the Nottingham fashion designer Paul Smith – with exporting opportunities in these markets. 

All this adds to the creation of soft power for cities. In this context at least, the traditional understanding of soft power as ‘power of attraction’ or ‘power of example’ should perhaps be broadened to include ‘power of experience’. Education is an immersive experience, and students often leave with a very strong affection not only for the country where they studied, but also for a specific city or town. Universities can play a part, not only in creating soft power for their locality, but in harnessing it by keeping in touch with alumni and creating opportunities for continued engagement both with their alma mater and their adopted city. 

In conclusion, UK universities will be vital to the country after Brexit, and will have to continue to expand their international reach; but in doing so they will have to do more to ensure that the benefits are shared with their local areas. Fortunately, many are already exploring innovative ways of doing just that.

Maddalaine Ansell, Director of Education Policy, British Council

See also