‘We can make a difference’: why Sheffield Hallam University is embracing its civic duty

Georgina Fuller
Photograph: eye35/Alamy Stock Photo

Universities today are facing new and never-imagined challenges, from navigating the Covid-19 crisis and having to move courses online, to a potential £2.5bn loss in tuition fees, to students having had to move out of university accommodation during lockdown. In the face of these momentous changes that are set to alter all aspects of higher education, Richard Calvert, deputy vice-chancellor (strategy and operations) at Sheffield Hallam University, says that it’s more important than ever for universities to be “civic” and pull together to help support their local communities.

“What’s focusing our attention now is how we can really leverage the university’s strengths and capacity to support the economic and social development of the region – especially as it deals with the impact of Covid-19,” he notes. “Being truly civic means putting civic engagement at the centre of decision-making rather than being an add-on. It means listening to and understanding local priorities and needs, and it means working out how we can genuinely make a difference.”

Sheffield Hallam’s historical roots, which are closely tied to the city’s industrial and economic heritage and its 177-year-old Institute of Arts – founded in 1843 to provide skilled designers to support British industry – put it in an excellent position to be a local leader, Calvert says.

Richard Brabner, director at the UPP Foundation, a registered charity that offers grants to universities, charities and other higher education bodies, says that hosting the Civic University Network is a form of public pledge to support best practice, develop peer reviews and connect with other partners. “Sheffield Hallam won the UPP Foundation’s competition to host the national Civic University Network and is one of 60 universities UPP works with. It’s part of a growing movement,” Brabner notes.

He believes that the network’s civic role will be more important than ever in the aftermath of the pandemic. “It will be about supporting the community on a local level, helping to overcome things such as loneliness and inequality, but also on a wider, economic level with urban regeneration and jobs,” he says.

Calvert points out that Sheffield Hallam is already one of the biggest providers of degree-level apprenticeships, both for local employers and as an internship provider for its 30,000-plus students. “Much of the Sheffield city region economy is SME-based, and so we’re also working with partners locally on wider skills development, as well as providing incubation and other support facilities,” he says.

It also runs the South Yorkshire Futures programme, with support from the Department for Education, which works with schools, local authorities and employers to address educational attainment and aspiration from early years through to the transition to employment or further study.

“We’re leading work to set up a regional skills council, bringing together the two local universities, FE colleges, employers and the mayoral authority to address long-term issues around skills gaps and coherence of provision and progression routes for both learners and employers,” Calvert says.

Conor Moss, group director of business engagement, skills and employability at Sheffield Hallam, points out that 40% of the university’s full-time undergraduates are from a 25-mile radius of the city and that it focuses on disadvantaged areas.

“As one of the largest providers of degree apprenticeships, we work closely with hundreds of regional businesses to support their workforce development, this includes providing a matching service for regional businesses looking to recruit school leavers,” he says.

This includes the Rise (Research on Improving Systems of Education) programme, which has supported approximately 450 graduates into long-term employment with regional SMEs. Caitlin Hodgkinson, a graduate of Sheffield Hallam and communications officer at Roundabout, a youth housing charity, says: “The Rise scheme was ideal for me because I wanted to stay in Sheffield. Roundabout appealed to me more than other graduate schemes because it has links to the university and because it’s such a worthwhile SME.”

Moss also cites the Sheffield Innovation Programme (SIP), which delivers innovation support to hundreds of SMEs in the Sheffield city region with the aim of stimulating business growth and organisational innovation. “And the ScaleUp 360 scheme, a partnership with Chambers of Commerce in Doncaster and the east Midlands, which delivers support for high-growth companies, with more than 150 SMEs being supported at any one time.”

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In addition, the university has recently taken on two major new-build research and development facilities, with a combined investment of about £25m. “The Advanced Wellbeing Research Centre (AWRC), which was recently awarded University Enterprise Zone funding, is developing devices and interventions to help people to lead healthier lives,” Moss says. It includes a clinical facility, which works in partnership with local NHS providers.

“And the National Centre of Excellence for Food Engineering is developing important solutions to industry challenges, for example automation, competitiveness, waste and sustainability,” he adds.

It is, ultimately, about Sheffield Hallam seeing that civic role and duty as intrinsic to who it is as a university and local leader, Calvert says.

“This means we don’t see it as something extra or ‘nice-to-have’, rather as something which is embedded in the way we operate, teach and learn,” he says. “It’s a way of bringing together the huge range of skills, expertise and enthusiasm which exist across our community of around 35,000 students and staff.”