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Engaging with the changing character of Place


Dr Chris Wyatt, Impact and Policy Engagement Manager, and Dr Camelia Dijkstra, Head of Research Services, have written a joint blog to discuss working in collaboration on Place and Policy Engagement at the University.

Place is an important theme at the University of Wolverhampton, it forms a key part of the Institutional Strategic Plan and informs the way the University appreciates its role as a civic institution.

 The University’s Strategic Plan exemplifies this and states that:

 ‘We believe that universities are about transforming society by ensuring the needs of their Place and people are at the heart of what they do. As the University of Opportunity our Place informs the courses we teach, the research we invest in and the skills we equip people with.’

This is echoed by a recent contribution from the University’s Interim Vice Chancellor, Professor Ian Campbell, who wrote:

 ‘Any attempt to truly level up “left behind” regions that does not recognise the role of modern universities as anchor institutions and make them a central part of that mission would be missing a trick. Through the ongoing research they do and the technical and vocational education they deliver, modern universities are working to realise the government’s stated ambitions…. Often the biggest employer in their regions, universities are the beating civic heart of their local areas. Their successes are their community’s successes.’

In such an encouraging policy environment, it was logical to focus on Place.

The Place journey began with research into Place Policy and work to understand how best to interface with it, on a number of levels. This is because Place, as we encounter it, manifests itself in different ways. For example, civic and local aspects of Place are immediately obvious but cross-regional ones, such as Free Ports, are less so.

Colleagues at the University were also fortunate to be able to liaise with colleagues from other universities to understand what they do. Two groups stand out. These are: the University Policy Engagement Network (UPEN) and the Association of Research Managers and Administrators (ARMA). The ability to compare perspectives and experience has been invaluable and the willingness of colleagues to give so generously of their time has further illustrated the strong collaborative working for which the sector is so well known.

The first task was to understand the Place Policy landscape, and this resulted in the Place Policy Review, which was published by ARMA in September 2022.  The Review summarised the policy discussion concerning Place and engaged with themes such as the importance of the local, economic factors, and the role of Levelling Up. These all provide policy hooks, which are so important to universities. An associated question is the changing character of Place. Changing ways of working and trading, especially in towns and cities have a considerable effect, something understood before the pandemic started. These changes alter both the structure and prosperity of the Places where Higher Education Institutions are situated and this, in turn, affects the nature of engagement with local and regional interlocutors.

While exploring the Place Policy landscape, a field enlivened by the publication of the Levelling Up White Paper in February 2022, attention turned to what best practice could be developed. The integration of partnership, Impact, and funding was the optimal direction of travel, and a seminar series was developed, which was delivered with fifteen other colleagues and hosted by ARMA. The seminar series provided:

‘An overview on current policy on Place/Levelling Up, including the role that research and development and, specifically, the roles that partnership, Impact and innovation can play in the Place agenda; and insights on how different policy and funding streams can be brought together to support place-based impact and research partnership and innovation activity to bring benefit to an area/region or nation of the UK.’

The result was Place: Partnership, Impact and Funding: A Framework for Best Practice, also published by ARMA. This set out a checklist, which was designed to support research managers in the preparation of research proposals and which was also intended to be used to raise the quality of applications to UKRI, and other funders, for funding relating to Place. The publication of the above framework coincided with a blog, entitled Reflections On Why Place Matters, also hosted by ARMA. 

The second best practice publication was entitled Enabling Universities to Engage Better in their Place: An Outline Toolkit, and which has been recently published by UPEN. The Toolkit sees Place from various stakeholder perspectives and sets out the findings of a UPEN survey on Place, discussing what works for HEIs in terms of maximising best practice. The Toolkit collates member responses as a practical aid to support HEIs considering enhancing their engagement with the Place agenda and policy.

Taken together, the three publications provide both a survey of policy regarding Place and two mechanisms through which to managers and research professionals can develop best practice with regard to it. This represents an encouraging step forward in what is a new and emerging field. We are also mindful that policy is an ever-changing aspect of government and that there are more Place-related themes to explore and we look forward to doing so in the months and years ahead.

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