Towards the Collaborative University?

The pressure on universities to be ‘all singing and dancing’ institutions is being driven largely by factors beyond its control. Population growth and the ‘massification’ of higher education has seen the sector mushroom over the last 10 – 15 years, and shows little sign of slowing down, as the projected global population is set to reach 9.7 billion by 2050.

But there are also pressures on universities from their main client base: students. In a world where even possessing multiple degrees is no guarantee of a high-flying career, students are increasingly basing their university choices on a university experience that offers more than just a highly-regarded degree – but also manages to encompass a deeper connection to the world around them. This in turn, is forcing higher education institutions (HEIs) to prioritise areas in which they have real comparative advantage (e.g. beneficial relationships with businesses, international partnerships, civic engagement activity etc.), rather than spread themselves impossibly thinly across a large and fiercely competitive market.

Of course, this is no small feat, and the process will require universities to reappraise their sense of purpose, their stakeholder relationships, and perhaps more importantly, their capacity and willingness to embrace change.

History tells us that universities can and have played an invaluable role in the social and economic development of the localities in which they are based, responding directly to skills gaps, employment opportunities, and providing essential knowledge (Notable examples across the UK include Sheffield University, Newcastle University, and Huddersfield Polytechnic). John Goddard’s extensive work over the last 25 years has termed this the ‘civic university’. However, the higher education landscape is unequivocally more complicated than ever before – as is the world around it. This therefore poses a number of questions around the nature and resilience of the civic university as it contends with a global market. What does it now mean to be ‘civic’ when the lines are blurred across messy and complex metropolises, and the challenges and demands so intricate that they require well-thought through and collaborative solutions?’

Developing the collaborative head space…

The higher education scene/sector could indeed benefit from an astute spin doctor working tirelessly to revive a slightly one-dimensional external image. The predominant (and unfortunate) public perception of universities is of institutions that provide either private benefits to individuals that can access and afford them (with worrying trends indicating that these private benefits are increasingly being taken elsewhere) or driving macro economic growth through the provision of higher level skills, and innovative, pioneering research discoveries that attract a wider, and usually global audience.

But the civic university fit for the 21st century can play a vital role in connecting knowledge, research, and communities in a holistic approach to solving difficult problems. In practice, this will mean universities, as well as other ‘obvious’ civic institutions (local authorities, NHS, transport bodies etc.) developing the collaborative capacity to cross traditional boundaries, share knowledge and pool resources to collaboratively tackle problems.

Other universities in the UK are taking a timely cue to move beyond the ‘civic’ rhetoric in a visibly less mature and diverse higher education landscape (compared to the USA, for example where similar civic models have been in existence for some time) and focus on the language and art of collaboration. We at Collaborate are currently working with London South Bank University to develop the Centre for Urban Collaboration – a new centre to exchange knowledge and practice with the aim of establishing a bedrock for long term relationships with the community. The centre will provide new insight, convene, broker, and incubate new approaches to urban collaboration across sectors and disciplines, seeking new ways in which shared ownership of the growth and prosperity of cities can be created and sustained.

The pursuit of the collaborative university will need the strong will of higher education institutions to ‘self-direct’ and ‘self-improve’ in a sea of government dictated higher education policy. But, we will all need to encourage this shift from ‘civic’ to ‘collaborative’ if we want our universities to deliver higher social value.


To find out more about the Centre for Urban Collaboration, please contact Associate Director Adelaide Adade (

This image file is being used under a Creative Commons license.

About Adelaide Adade

Adelaide is the Partnerships and Project Manager at Collaborate. Adelaide has previously worked internationally in the private, public, and social sectors. Adelaide has a BA in French and Spanish from the University of Bristol and an MA from the UCL Institute of Education.

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