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Towards a 'University for Reading'

Robert Van de Noort

The University contributes £800 million to the UK economy, according to a new report on 'The Social and Economic Contribution of the University of Reading'. Vice-Chancellor Robert Van de Noort says the report highlights that we are doing good and provides case studies of the quality of our engagement.

Anyone who knows the University of Reading well knows we are a group of people who are doing some wonderful things. Even after almost five years here, every day I learn of new initiatives and projects of colleagues and students that remind me what a brilliant place this is. We very often make assumptions that universities are, on the whole, Good Things. It seems obvious to me.

But if you read the papers you will know that not everyone agrees, all the time. Some people disagree with our research findings, others disagree with our approach to diversity and inclusion and quite a few say we are educating too many students. Obviously, we don’t always get it right. Sometimes we could do better. And one area where we can definitely do better is in our engagement with our local communities.

"I know of many amazing initiatives that already exist, and many that have run for years, to support the communities in which we are embedded – especially in Reading, Wokingham and the broader Thames Valley."

I know of many amazing initiatives that already exist, and many that have run for years, to support the communities in which we are embedded – especially in Reading, Wokingham and the broader Thames Valley. But I am convinced that we are not doing enough. Reading Borough Council describes Reading as the fourth most divided town in the UK. We can and must do more to help reduce that inequality.

As you might expect from an academic institution, we have started with an evaluation of what we already do. The findings are presented in a new report, commissioned by us to show the full economic and social contribution of the University of Reading.

This document provides, for the first time, an independent assessment of our institutional impact. It demonstrates clearly how together we are contributing to benefit our town, our country, and the world.

The headline figures are impressive. Overall, the University contributes £800 million to the UK economy and supports 11,550 jobs, primarily in the Thames Valley region. In fact, 1 in every 27 jobs in Reading and Wokingham exists because the University is here.

Our students contribute greatly to the local economy and society, with 600 jobs in Reading created thanks to the spending power of our students alone.

These figures show that we are big. But even more importantly, the report highlights that we are doing good, and provides case studies of the quality of our engagement.

"These figures show that we are big. But even more importantly, the report highlights that we are doing good, and provides case studies of the quality of our engagement."

There are some wonderful stories about the ways the University helps people. Students volunteering with children in local schools. Researchers such as Professors Flora Samuel and Tim Dixon, applying their expertise to help reimagine what Reading will look like in 30 years’ time. The contribution our Museum of English Rural Life brings to the region and the opportunities we will create by attracting the British Museum Archaeological Research Collection to Shinfield.

This report is an important benchmark. It shows how, as an institution, we value efforts to support the quality and richness of people’s lives. Yet I believe there is much more that we can do.

That’s why we must renew the University’s strategy. We need a refreshed sense of common purpose and vision. We have done similar things before – but this time, we will create a strategy from the bottom up. We will work closely with you, the University, and consult with our key partners in the region. This will help us to build a stronger ‘University for Reading’ - and we have not forgotten about Wokingham.

We should not pre-empt these discussions. But I would foresee the kind of plan that strengthens the value of our institution to the whole community, helping the thousands of students, staff, graduates and all people across Reading feel joint ownership, pride in our mission, and seeing clear benefits to themselves from our existence here. Personally, I would love to bring back lifelong learning because that is what many people might expect from a University that cares about its local communities.

Of course, being a ‘University for Reading’ does not change our commitment to being a global institution. Our research will continue to have worldwide impact. We still want to attract the best international students and staff. And we will continue to pursue high-quality partnerships around the world.

"We should build on what we do best, rebuild trust, and play a part in helping to make a fairer, healthier, more resilient society."

But in increasingly uncertain times, we need our institutions to engage locally more than ever. We should build on what we do best, rebuild trust, and play a part in helping to make a fairer, healthier, more resilient society.

As one of the UK’s most prosperous regions, the town of Reading will be at the forefront of helping Britain to build a new role for itself in the world. And as an anchor institution in the heart of the town, the University will help, not only by putting Reading on the global map, but by helping everyone in our area to benefit from the advantages that this international outlook brings.

Together as a University, I welcome your contributions to the process of building a new strategy. I am confident that this will give us the momentum we need to continue our mission to help change lives for the better. We are planning a range of methods for consultation, but I look forward in particular to the all-staff talks in April when we will talk in more detail about the new University strategy.

(Read The Economic and Social Contribution of the University of Reading report here)

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