By Caroline Chipperfield

01 July 2014 - 15:16

Universities working directly with their communities might be looking into questions such as: 'What are the effects of an ageing population in a particular town?' Photo (c) Garry Knight, licensed under CC BY 2.0 and adapted from the original.
'Universities working within their communities might be looking at the effects of an ageing population.' Photo ©

Garry Knight, licensed under CC BY 2.0 and adapted from the original.

Universities teach and research, but what impact do they have on society? Ahead of a related policy dialogue in Guangzhou, China, on 12 July, the British Council's Caroline Chipperfield explains how more and more higher education institutions are becoming an integral part of their local communities.

Links between higher education and communities are getting stronger

In April this year, the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) published a research report by Tomas Coates Ulrichsen of Cambridge University, who described the achievements and challenges for universities in acting as 'anchors' of the economy and society.

The report found that, despite a major economic downturn and substantial changes within the higher education sector, engagement between universities, businesses and their communities has remained positive throughout this time and in many cases, these links are getting even stronger.

A new type of university: 'anchor institutions'

The concept ‘universities as anchor institutions’, has long been recognised in the United States and is growing in support across the UK. In the UK, there has been a strong trend towards understanding the social and economic impact of a university beyond the campus boundary. Traditionally, universities have concentrated on teaching and research, but a few years ago, a new model of universities -- 'enterprise' universities -- recognised that it was the positive impact on their local area that made them so distinctive and successful. Universities across the UK were beginning to consider the way in which their activities could create and build stronger cities and communities. They were beginning to articulate the impact of their teaching and research on the communities that were hosting them.

An anchor institution, as defined by Axelroth Hodges and Dubb, is one where the mission of a university is to 'consciously and strategically apply the institution's long-term, place-based economic power, in combination with its human and intellectual resources, to better the welfare of the community in which it resides'. This has been quite a ‘light-bulb’ moment for many institutions. They were no longer purely concerned with academic matters, but realised they had the power -- autonomous, positive and apolitical -- to change their immediate environment.

Local and global - both approaches are important

And a university's research output can play a crucial part in its offer to the community. University research is often seen to tackle the global challenges of our age, e.g., fighting diseases, managing natural disasters, finding new forms of energy. But there are also many examples of universities working directly with their communities to improve their quality of life and find solutions to more everyday questions. Such questions might include: What are the effects of an ageing population in a particular town? How do we promote a local woodland to the community? How do we attract more volunteers for our community group? How do we encourage school children to eat healthy food?

But even if most of these challenges are local in context, they may have national or wider significance. For example, a UK university that conducted community research in early dementia awareness and how best to train doctors in its diagnosis contributed to the National Dementia Strategy, and went on to advise the UK government.

Partnering with other local institutions increases the positive impact of universities

This power to change things seems greatest when universities partner with other anchor institutions, such as local councils or hospitals. John Hopkins University in the US just announced that it would join seven other universities and hospitals in signing a pledge to grow and revitalise the city of Baltimore, and help solve some of its most pressing challenges. The Baltimore City Anchor Plan targets four priority areas of collaboration -- two of those based on research (public safety, quality of life in the city) and two others on how the university spends its budget (hiring from local businesses, purchasing from local businesses).

The trends in China

So what does this mean for universities in China? The Ministry of Education announced this month that it would restructure a substantial number of university teaching programmes to focus on applied technology and professional education. Will the renewed attention on the polytechnic model of higher education, transforming 600 local-level public universities into higher technical and vocational universities, move institutions closer to industry and their communities? Will these polytechnics be the early supporters of the anchor university in China? This remains to be seen.

The UK keynote speakers at the policy dialogue on anchor universities are Professor Nigel Healey, Pro-Vice-Chancellor (International), Nottingham Trent University, Nick Miles OBE, Provost, University of Nottingham Ningbo China, and Prof. Xi Youmin, Executive President, Xi’an Jiaotong-Liverpool University. Professor Healey will share the experiences of UK universities' engagement with industry and business. Prof. Miles and Prof. Xi will talk about the role that research, technology transfer and new technology play in higher education innovation.

The British Council in China is hosting this dialogue with Guangdong Academy of Education (GDAE) as part of the second Southern Education Summit, an annual conference convened by GDAE. Higher education professionals, researchers and university leaders from across China will be in attendance.

For more news, events and reports on higher education, connect with us on LinkedIn.

You might also be interested in: