Museums and lectures are undoubtedly great ways to draw the public to their local university, but is there more scope for a broad-reaching approach, one that doesn’t rely on one-off visits, one that’s more thoroughly integrated?

Away from education, we’re already seeing spaces become multifunctional in order to attract people for multiple purposes on multiple occasions. Hotels are opening co-working spaces; cafes double up as yoga studios and stores host art galleries. We’re seeing an explosion of spaces that people can simply hang out in for hours and return to again for a completely different reason.

In order to engage the wider local community, many university’s sports facilities are open to the public, as well as university-run art galleries, museums and concert venues. In fact, more than 100 university museums are open to the public across the UK, attracting nearly 4 million public visits a year. However, with many of these public-facing facilities being located off-campus, a survey by College and University Business Officers (CUBO) found that less than 10% of universities strongly agree that “Our campus works well for the wider community.”

With social responsibility as a core goal, might universities have the potential to step in as the civic centre of the 21st century? Could they create a welcoming campus that offers a whole host of facilities not just to the student body but to the wider local community?

With libraries, sports facilities, community spaces, opportunities for adult learning, cafes and green spaces, modern universities could well develop a ‘magnetic campus’, somewhere that not only attracts and engages the local community but gives them a reason to return time and time again.

A return to civic engagement
“In the nineteenth century, civic universities were created to serve the cities they were from”, the UPP’s ‘Truly Civic’ campaign video explains. And despite the fact that some new universities also embrace a civic purpose, critics are challenging the perception that universities truly provide public value.

“There are growing calls for institutions and departments to move away from task-based thinking; to go beyond the academic and link more with the community and civic engagement, and create a greater sense of community,” says Jan Capper, chief executive of CUBO.

The proof of the success of embracing civic purpose is already out there if you know where to look. Think Corner is one shining example. Run by the University of Helsinki, it was re-opened in 2017 as a replacement to the previous “uninvitingly office-like” spot.

“Our mission is to make academic research accessible to everybody,” says Think Corner programme manager Antti Asumaa. The space serves as a place for scientists and scholars to present new knowledge and research to the public and, away from the main arena stage, there are plenty of other spaces including cosy nooks for catch ups, meeting rooms and areas for individual study. It is, at its heart, a public space and an important link between the university and the city it’s based in.

In Amsterdam, Vrije Universiteit (VU) is building a new campus, and in order to draw the public in they’ve earmarked one lecture hall to double up as a cinema. In the afternoons, evenings and on weekends, it will serve as a second location for the city’s iconic Rialto cinema; a long term collaboration between two important cultural bodies that has been branded as the “Rialto VU Campus.”

A university, just by virtue of existing, can transform the town or city it’s based in. Student villages emerge to house the student population and businesses pop up, or transform, in response to a young demographic. Even an institution’s physicality can affect the look and feel of its home base, depending on factors such as design and size, location and the size of the town or city its based in, the UPP Foundation notes. The University of South Australia’s spectacular Pridham Hall, for example – which is home to a pool, sports facilities, function spaces and green spaces – has become a civic landmark by extending access to the public, engendering a sense of ownership.

And the UK is making further inroads too. The Hive, in Worcester, is the first joint public and university library in Europe. Carrying over a quarter of a million books and with a packed programme of lectures, exhibitions and performances, The Hive has seen a “200% increase in books issued and a 100% plus increase in visits compared to the previous public Worcester library.”

A tool for engagement
The Civic Community Commission believes that “universities, at the very least, should use the capacity and capabilities of their development teams to raise funding for placebased projects and initiatives that provide mutual benefit to local communities and the university.”

The capacity for civic engagement and growth, by reaching out to the community and inviting them in, is enormous. And as an emerging model, a magnetic campus has so much potential to be explored.

As the UPP Foundation Civic University Commission notes, “Whatever the context of the asset itself, the physical presence of a university is something that is visible and tangible, and is a tool for engaging with the local population.”

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