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“Universities do not thrive in isolation”: on the role of the civic university

The vice-president of Kings College London.

The civic university movement of the late-19th century sought to establish new educational establishments that would meet the needs of the burgeoning industrial economies in Britain’s growing urban areas. These universities – often focused on science and engineering – opened up in cities such as Manchester, Birmingham and Liverpool, providing the skills and expertise needed to help industry to thrive.

In a new industrial age, where knowledge-sharing is paramount, what does it mean to be a civic university, particularly in a global city such as London? What value can a university add to its communities, and how can it strengthen and deepen its relationships with those living and working on its doorstep?

Universities do not thrive in isolation; their success is dependent on fostering genuine two-way engagement, listening to the needs of local communities and working with them to develop solutions to the challenges they face.

In practice, this means that our cities have the potential to be living laboratories, and that the people within them can contribute to the generation of world-leading ideas: not just as passive subjects of research, but as co-creators of knowledge through their lived experiences.

At King’s College London, the capital and the communities that live and work within it are integral to our research. We lead the London Air Quality Network, monitoring air pollution data across the capital and using this data to convince politicians that vital changes must be made to improve air quality in our communities.

We are working with local women who access the capital’s mental health services to help transform the treatment offered during pregnancy.


And our partnership with the London Ambulance Service through DASH – Data Awareness for Sending Help – aims to deliver a step-change in the capital’s ambulance efficiency, analysing big data sources such as live traffic feeds, mobile location data and weather tracking to speed up ambulance response times and – ultimately – save lives. 

These are important examples of how a civic university can make a real difference to the lives of its local communities. But we know that even more can be done to connect universities with their neighbours, not least by developing physical spaces create an open door for the people who walk past on a daily basis.

Universities have found different ways to create these routes in: the University of Birmingham’s Barber Institute houses the music and art history departments as well as public galleries and concert halls, while Goldsmith’s Centre of Contemporary Art aims to make Lewisham a must-visit destination for anyone interested in contemporary art.

Now Science Gallery London, on our Guy’s campus at London Bridge, offers a new way for King’s to connect in a meaningful way with the communities living and working around us.

The gallery building itself is – quite literally – outward-facing. Instead of facing into the campus, the main entrance – a bright, open, glass frontage – looks out onto Great Maze Pond, a busy thoroughfare connecting Guy’s Hospital to Bermondsey and London Bridge station. On the opposite side, our historic Georgian courtyard has been opened up as a meeting place for local workers, residents and students.

Rather than waiting for young people to feel confident enough to seek out their local university, Science Gallery London actively invites young adults to come in, push the boundaries and experiment with new ideas.

Science Gallery London’s programme is guided by its Young Leaders, a group of 15-25 year olds drawn from King’s students and the local boroughs of Southwark and Lambeth. These young people ensure that the gallery and King’s as a whole represents and champions the voice of young people and our local communities.

Despite the best efforts of universities to increase participation, it remains the case that higher education is still not an option for many young people from disadvantaged families. We know that too many young people in our neighbouring boroughs of Lambeth and Southwark fall into this category. It is our responsibility to do everything we can to ensure that the opportunities we offer are available to everyone. And we know that the knowledge we co-create and the students we educate are all enhanced if King’s is a truly inclusive institution.

Our new gallery is a major part of this vision. It is not just a ‘regeneration’ project, or a showcase for our research. Through Science Gallery London, King’s is presenting the face of a contemporary civic university: one that is an integral part of its local community and open to the world beyond.

Baroness Deborah Bull is vice president & vice-principal (London) of King’s College London.


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