Universities as anchor institutions in local communities

Susan Parham, University of Hertfordshire

This fascinating podcast gets into some really big themes that are fundamental to how universities can add social as well as economic value to local and broader areas and communities. It is not surprising that in a market economy, as Sophie Duncan, the Deputy Director of the National Co-Ordinating Centre for Public Engagement says, there’s a tendency to only value and want to quantify the economic benefit and impact of universities, whereas the ‘soft value’ that Professor Justin Champion of Royal Holloway refers to is something senior administrators and policy makers in both universities and governments may feel less comfortable with. Yet soft value is incredibly important not just to overcoming traditional issues like town and gown separation, but to support, nurture and involve communities which have sometimes been marginalized or excluded by changing economic and social conditions. As Sophie Duncan explains, universities are often the biggest or even “the only show in town” and they have unparalleled opportunities because of that to make positive (but often undervalued) impacts by engaging with the communities around them.

There are intriguing examples described in the podcast including the University of Hertfordshire’s ‘Heritage Hub’ which has sought to bridge the gap between the once vibrant aerospace industry in the town and the effects on local communities of rapid and profound economic change reflected in Hatfield’s de-industrialisation. As Dr Sarah Lloyd, a historian at the University of Hertfordshire and director of the Heritage Hub points out, following the loss of over 2,500 jobs in the aerospace industry in Hatfield, and the building of the university’s De Havilland Campus on the now empty site, she and her colleagues wanted to find a way of making this space connect to Hatfield’s recent past and its community in more than name only. Dr Lloyd points out that the university can provide a kind of institutional continuity from the time when the aerospace industry was ascendant to the very different circumstances for Hatfield’s community today.

Similarly, the University of Liverpool’s location on the edge of Toxteth is understood by Professor David White from UL as giving it both unique challenges and opportunities to connect with a community that had suffered really significant social and economic marginalization. The university developed an ‘Interchange’ project which Claudette Graham, who co-ordinates the project, explains has sought to overcome the separation between town and gown and bring the university closer to a community that had been frozen out of the benefits of change; and for whom higher education had not previously seemed something they could engage with or have their own skills and experience recognized or validated by. Another interesting project from the University of Sussex similarly engages with young people in ways that integrates them into the benefits that the university can bring.

As Professor Justin Champion from Royal Holloway points out this kind of social capital building is incredibly important although often undervalued when set against more monetary measures. And the podcast identifies a whole slew of reasons why universities are actually uniquely well placed to build social capital with local communities including their institutional resources of funds, knowledge and skills. It was equally intriguing to hear about the very broad range of kinds of projects universities are involved in – from industrial heritage trails in deprived communities in Liverpool and around the former aerospace site in Hatfield, to pop-up exhibitions, history departments as beacons of local learning, as in Bristol, and linkages with local museums through Royal Holloway, among others.

It was gratifying, too, to find that arguments I made with colleagues in a paper a couple of years ago on this very topic were reflected in the arguments being made, and the examples given, of positive forms of work universities around the country are undertaking to become really useful ‘anchor institutions’ in social as well as economic ways. Reflecting on the University of Hertfordshire’s experience, especially in relation to its Heritage Hub, we made the point in that paper that universities have the capacity to play an important role in supporting what we called “the living heritage of place” (p.7) We explained that “by remembering industrial pasts we can powerfully affirm the town’s living history”, and that, in turn, “has the potential to inform policy, place-shaping and academic theory and practice” (p.7).

It seems to me that that the work highlighted in this podcast reinforces the point that as “one of few points of continuity in a community, universities remain underexplored as institutions with the resilience, adaptability and capital to act as anchors to lead work on reclaiming lost pasts and build sustainable futures.” (p.7) My final thought is that this excellent podcast offers us some really praiseworthy examples of how – and why - universities might go about that in future.


Parham, S., Green, A., & Lloyd, S. (2013). Living heritage: Universities as anchor institutions in sustainable communities. International Journal of Heritage and Sustainable Development.