James Thompson: Our Civic Future

by | Jun 20, 2019 | SLT | 4 comments

In the Our Future consultation one of the strongest messages that came out from staff, students and alumni was the connection our University has to its city. The Manchester word in our title was viewed as of particular significance – being of Manchester gave us a certain advantage, perspective, or deflected kudos that comes from being situated in one of the most energetic, creative and innovative metropolitan areas in the country, if not the world.

Of course, this should not have been surprising. Many of us who work here, or came as students, did so for reasons other than the particular strengths of our disciplines, departments or the particular interests we had in the University. People have always cited music, youth culture, football and an elusive Manchester-ness as the reasons they came to the city. I certainly arrived here to study theatre encouraged by the reputation of the Stone Roses as much as my knowledge of the Drama Department.

However, our sense of place in the city does have a much longer heritage. We are known as the first Civic University in England – always at service to and supporting the growth and prosperity of the region. We trained its engineers, doctors, and teachers. Our innovations in education policy, medical science, computing – amongst many other things – changed the reputation of our city and in turn had major impacts on the world.

The enthusiasm for this civic connectedness, coming so strongly from the Our Future consultation, means that it will now feature as one of the key themes of our University’s future strategy. It will now be a major component of how we understand our role, our commitment and our priorities.

But what will this involve?

The word ‘civic’ of course has a double meaning. On the one hand it refers to the city – the place we are located. So, when used in terms such as civic centre, it simply describes a community centre connected to its town. A civic university in this sense describes a university that is situated within the boundaries of a city. However, a second meaning of civic implies a sense of moral imperative. This is found in phrases like civic duty. The outcome of the recent Kerslake Commission into the civic role of universities was focused far more on this sense. Yes, we are situated by happy accident in the city of Manchester, but actually civic has more power than simple location – it implies a sense of joint endeavour, purpose or responsibility that is more challenging. And by putting civic in our new strategy we are suggesting we want to meet this challenge.

How we do this, of course, must be shaped by colleagues, students and alumni who work across multiple sites, on different agendas and facing vastly different demands. But it does suggest a sense of orientation to the needs of our region in a proportion of our research, teaching, cultural institution focus and employment practices. It leads us to examine our contribution to the carbon reduction targets agreed at a city and Greater Manchester level. And it highlights that working with partners across GM is beneficial both to our region and our institution.

However, it also should be open enough for colleagues and students to shape it to work with their particular skills and capabilities. Student volunteering can make huge contributions to the success of our city; our cultural institutions’ engagement with diverse audiences can expand the creative ambition of our city; teaching in partnership with local business, community organisations, cultural bodies or education providers, provides a vital boost to local partners but also dynamic career enhancing opportunities for students. Collaborative research and policy development focused towards the multiple, complex needs of our city can lead to positive social, health, economic, environmental and cultural outcomes for our region, and lead to international quality research outcomes.

So, the next steps? We hope you will contribute to discussions about what civic engagement might mean for work in your area, including in the comments section of this blog.

Ask, for example, how might existing initiatives be developed or expanded to link with the city? How might teaching and research located by happy accident in the great city of Manchester be part of its continued transformation? How can we inspire our region, as much as we are inspired by it? Civic is part of our future, but it is staff, students, alumni and partners that will shape it – and make it a dynamic part of our University’s current and future identity.

Professor James Thompson

Vice-President for Social Responsibility


  1. Dr Rebecca Taylor

    I have the privilege to campaign/research alongside volunteers across Greater Manchester who roll up their sleeves and care for our green (and blue) spaces.
    Being immersed in practice-based research is messy and experiencing this type of research is far from the clinical and statistical type experienced across other academic disciplines. Just as a city and its civic pride is diverse, so too are the research methods that influence how we are perceived as ‘civic’. I believe that those seeking out the nuances of the complexity and vitality of Manchester life are transcending boundaries. Indeed, to me, your article is hinting at our civic future being shared, ‘a joint endeavour’. May I suggest that to support the messiness of being ‘civic’, there needs to be a deeper critical awareness of the work already taking place. The value of humanity, of connection, face-to-face interaction is priceless. I sincerely hope that in adding this to the UoM strategy it will activate a sense of awareness that not only informs our civic future, but perhaps more importantly engages in the value of ‘Our Civic Now’.

    • James Thompson

      Thanks Rebecca. Really welcome the comments. And I particularly welcome the point that this often comes down to ‘messy’ practices relating to research methods. In the existing university Community Engagement strategy (see http://documents.manchester.ac.uk/display.aspx?DocID=30998) there is a strong commitment to the idea of this being collaborative – a joint enterprise as you suggest. I think the richness of the civic vision should come from the sense that we mutually benefit and these relationships are complex and two way.

  2. Paul Maccabee

    Great perspective James.

    In defining ‘Manchester-ness’ I’m reminded of the words of Sir Howard Bernstein upon his retirement as Chief Executive of Manchester City Council. He was asked how he will remember his fellow Mancunians:

    “Proud, passionate, edgy, and want to do the best for themselves and for the city. That’s the motto I live by. I hope I’ve done my best for Manchester.”

    As important as pride and passion are, the word that stands out for me is ‘edgy’ – as in being at the forefront of trends, being experimental and taking risks. An attitude to what we do and how we do it. This raises some interesting possibilities for us as we seek to refine our values in the context of our city.

    • James Thompson

      Thanks Paul. And couldn’t agree more about the edgy comment. Edgy comes out in the innovation that has happened here, and also the radical history of the place. We need to ensure it doesn’t translate to cocky (!) but appears in our desire to push down barriers, make the university inclusive and welcome critique.


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