A University for Public Good

A Strategic Vision for the University of York to 2030

The University of York exists for public good.

Our founders endowed the University with a strong social purpose, drawing on a rich tradition of social justice and combating inequality in a way that is distinctive to the City of York.

From the outset our research across the humanities, social sciences and natural sciences was intended not just to open up new knowledge through reason, experiment and debate, but also to apply that knowledge for the ‘amelioration of human life and conditions’. 1 Our students were not just to be technically proficient in their fields but also to be able to apply their learning for social benefit, both in the UK but also as ‘citizens of the world’. 2 We were to care ‘more than almost anything else’ 3 about opening up access to our University to those who had previously not had the opportunity. And even in the 1960s, our founders had a focus on what we now call equality, diversity and inclusion, recognising that all members of the University community contributed to its success, whatever their role or background, and should be supported to achieve to their full potential.

These principles encompass and extend beyond a view of higher education focused on its economic impact. Our work clearly does, and should, bring economic benefit. Our ideas enable businesses and other organisations to innovate and flourish and our degree programmes equip our graduates for successful careers. But our ambition extends beyond economic impact alone. Our ambition is that our expertise and its impacts help create the conditions needed for all parts of our society to flourish.

We reaffirm these principles today. They mark out a distinctive University of York commitment to public good which will guide our work over the next decade.

Our research and our students: what it’s all for

Our capacity for public good rests on two things: the quality of our research, and the quality of the experience our students have while they are at York. As we face external pressures, among them funding uncertainties and regulatory conditions, we reaffirm the words of our founding Vice-Chancellor, Lord James, that our research and our students are ‘what it’s all for’. 

Our research will continue to be driven by the curiosity that opens up new knowledge and is carried out to the highest standards. It will combine strong disciplinary foundations with a distinctive York tradition of creative interaction across disciplinary boundaries. Working across disciplines gives us a special capacity to discover and apply knowledge around some of the biggest challenges and opportunities our society faces, including environmental sustainability, energy, public health, digital technologies, the creative arts, and global development. These and other areas that emerge as our research continues to open up new knowledge will be the terrain on which we deliver future public good.

They will also be the terrain on which our students learn. We are proud of the parity of importance we give to research and student education at York. Our students thrive by learning in the midst of highly creative research, and by contributing through their ideas to that research.  Like our researchers, they will increasingly work and learn across disciplinary boundaries, inspired by outstanding teaching that will equip them as York graduates to work across different sectors, cultures, and ways of thinking, able to adapt as workplace needs change. While they study they will have opportunities to apply their learning in addressing social challenges in our city and region, in industry, and internationally, building the skills to become future leaders. 

Over time more of our students will study partly or wholly online and many will return to university to re-skill mid-career. Our student body will become increasingly representative of the society around us as we work to widen access to the University. Working with our students’ unions and our residential colleges we will ensure the vitality and well-being of this increasingly diverse student community. Our aim is that our students complete their studies with the knowledge, skills and commitment to help identify and resolve the social and economic needs of society in the UK and beyond, to make their contribution to public good.

The quality of our research and the experience of our students is in turn underpinned by the quality of our staff. We are therefore committed to maintaining a supportive environment in which members of staff can develop stimulating and rewarding careers and deploy their expertise, talent and commitment to maximum benefit within and beyond the University.

Collaboration for public good

The University of York thrives on collaboration. We can achieve more when we identify shared interests and build partnerships. We are already engaged and active members of networks of universities in Yorkshire, the North of England, the UK, Europe and worldwide.

We will develop these further to support collaborative research where we can join forces with other leading universities to develop larger-scale research programmes, and to build joint degree programmes and opportunities for student mobility. We will work with our UK and global alumni community to open up new opportunities for collaboration. And we will develop new kinds of collaboration – with community groups, local authorities, charities, the NHS, schools and colleges, industry – that open up additional routes to public good, new ideas for research, and new opportunities for student learning. 

Public good in city and region

We will be a leading contributor to public good in our city and region. Our University has not always displayed the clear civic purpose to match its distinctive civic roots. That must change. We have an opportunity to connect the innovations drawn from our research and the talents of our graduates, to the economic development of city and region – if we work in harness with local authorities, economic development bodies, the UK Government and its agencies. With them we can nurture a thriving cluster of SMEs embedded in city and region that draws in wider investment.

We will also work in closer collaboration with schools, colleges, charities and other universities in our city and region, to open up pathways for under-represented groups into higher education and beyond into a thriving regional economy. Widening participation will remain something we care about ‘more than almost anything else’. With that will come a diversity and richness of perspectives on which new learning experiences and the generation of new knowledge will be based.

We will work harder through our staff and our students to engage our work with the many communities in York and Yorkshire that have little experience of higher education and the public good it can bring. 

The University of York has an opportunity to offer civic leadership, collaborating with others to build community well-being and inclusive economic development. Delivering on that opportunity will be a central theme of the next decade.

Public good with international reach

We will also extend our international reach, reputation and impact through collaboration. Our offices in India, Malaysia and China will add to their role in student recruitment by brokering partnerships for research collaboration, funding and student mobility, and by working with our international alumni groups. Our partnership with the University of Maastricht – involving joint research and teaching programmes – will develop further, opening up a model for post-Brexit collaboration in the EU but also for bilateral partnerships in other parts of the world.

Our successes in the Global Challenges Research Fund provide a platform for developing partnerships in the Global South that will extend the innovations and impact of our research in ways which help address the pressing challenges set out in the UN Sustainable Development Goals. Collaboration through online teaching programmes will both deepen those partnerships and widen out access to a University of York education for international students unable to attend our on-campus programmes. 

Great ideas are imagined, challenged, revised and applied when people interact. Our clear view is that universities flourish when people – our staff and students – and the ideas they carry engage across borders. We will pursue this view with undiminished resolve as the conditions for international collaboration change in Europe and beyond in the coming years.

Responding to society’s biggest challenges 

The University of York has diverse interests and expertise, and the curiosity which drives us will continue to open up new fields of knowledge. But we can already identify areas of challenge and change in our society that will be central to our pursuit of public good over the next decade. 

The most pressing is environmental sustainability. The scientific findings on climate change are unambiguous and the consequences for our environment and biodiversity are stark. We face a global emergency. At the University of York we have outstanding expertise across a range of academic disciplines and students and staff who are passionately committed to tackling that emergency by building an environmentally sustainable future. We have an obligation to deploy this expertise and passion for public good. We will.

We will draw on the York tradition of creative engagement across disciplinary boundaries to bring together the different components – ethical, scientific, technological, behavioural, regulatory – of a comprehensive response to the sustainability challenge. We will reflect the knowledge this generates into the programmes available to students across the University so that our graduates take insight and skills on sustainability with them into their careers. We will work with York City Council, other local authorities and community groups to support them in achieving their sustainability objectives. 

We will work with government, industry and other partners to make our city and region an international hub for new economic sectors like the bioeconomy that will support our transition to a carbon-neutral future. We will nurture those sectors with innovations from our research and the talents of our graduates. We will work with our partners internationally to ensure that our impact on sustainability has worldwide reach and, conversely, that we build on experience from around the world to shape our city and region. We will work to ensure that students from disadvantaged backgrounds at home and abroad have the opportunity to study, shape ideas on, and then work in this crucial area.

And we will take a lead in our own operations, applying the expertise and passion of the University community to establish the University of York as a beacon for sustainability and biodiversity. 

We will identify a range of other challenges as university-wide priorities. They will include areas where we already have a strong track record – like mental health and wellbeing, the ethics and safety of new technologies, human rights and global conflict, and digital creativity – and others still emerging or yet to be defined. 

In these areas we will bring together expertise across disciplinary boundaries to enhance our research and our teaching, work with other universities where that enables us to achieve more, and collaborate with public and private sector partners to maximise our impact, and international partners to extend our reach. In these areas too we will ensure that students and others in disadvantaged communities have a stake and influence in our work. And we have the opportunity to apply insights and build impact from our work in fields like mental health or the safety of autonomous systems within the University as well as with our external partners. With that the University itself can become a proving ground for our public good.

How we will work

While our commitment to public good is clear, delivering this Strategic Vision will mean change in how we work. Our creativity in collaborating across disciplines in research is not fully matched in our teaching portfolio. Our engagement with city and region is effective in some areas but patchy in others. Our international partnership strategy has strong but, as yet, narrow foundations. And we do not yet mobilise our university-wide capabilities in environmental sustainability, mental health or other areas as well as we could. 

So there is much more to do. Over the next months we will develop an implementation plan to help deliver our Strategic Vision. Among the issues that will have to be addressed in depth in that plan three stand out: we will need to work in more agile ways; we will need a campus fit for the future; and we will need to work hard to maintain a strong community of shared purpose. 

The need for agility

Becoming more agile is both a cultural and an organisational challenge. Culturally it is about having an appropriate understanding of risk, and entrusting those with the right expertise to make decisions and get on with carrying them out. Organisationally it is about designing light-touch, streamlined and well-coordinated decision-making processes, and ensuring that the systems that underpin them enable us to work more effectively. It is also about having both a clear understanding and effective coordination of roles at different scales of organisation (department, faculty, university) and between academic and professional services staff. 

Cultural and organisational change will be needed to enable us to respond more quickly to new opportunities, especially in developing our teaching portfolio, and to manage workload so that we can maximise the time we have to focus on our research and our students. We will all need to be prepared to stop doing some things the way we have done them and adapt others so they help us achieve our ambitions.

A campus for the future

Renewing our campus is an imperative. As a university founded in the 1960s, much of our original estate is still in place. We have modernised that estate in a piecemeal way. But the estate challenge cannot just be about the renovation and replacement of what we have now, it needs to be about transformation, providing the platform on which we meet long-range challenges, work in different ways, and ensure environmental sustainability.

What co-locations of academic departments will we need to support collaboration across disciplinary boundaries in our research and in what our students learn? What facilities will we need for future learning and teaching, informal study, and staff and student social interaction? What facilities will we need – on campus or elsewhere – to pursue our partnerships with other organisations? And how quickly will we achieve a carbon-neutral campus? 

The renewal of our physical estate will be underpinned by new technologies. We will work with students and staff to ensure their views and requirements are at the core of our systems and processes. And we will support students and staff to develop the skills necessary to take up the opportunities and new ways of working that new technologies will offer.

Investing in a campus for the future will likely cost some hundreds of million pounds over the next decade. We will need to be creative in securing government, industry and philanthropic funding. We will also need to generate higher operational surpluses to match and boost external funding.

A community of shared purpose

We will not achieve all we might unless we maintain a strong sense of shared purpose across the University community. This will flow in part from our shared commitment to public good. But it will also require us to support all members of our community to achieve their potential. Our student body will become more diverse as we open up access to more students from disadvantaged backgrounds, as we recruit from different locations internationally, and as we teach more online.

We will need to ensure that we have the support in place for all to flourish within and beyond the classroom, requiring effective coordination between academic teaching and advice, professional services focused on student experience, our students’ unions, our residential colleges and other facilities and services used by our students in York and online.

And we need to focus just as much on the experience of our staff. Our employment conditions at all grades need to be fair and of high quality. We need to understand and manage workload effectively. And we need to practice a deep commitment to equality, diversity and inclusion, giving support and respect to a diverse community of colleagues so that all can achieve to the full – in the process tackling persistent problems like the gender pay gap with energy and impact. 

As Lord James put it in his valedictory report on the development of the University over its first decade through to 1972: "I have always been conscious of a collaborative enterprise that at its best has always put consideration and respect as among the prerequisites for success." 5 This too is a principle we reaffirm today, as a prerequisite for our success over the next ten years.

Find out more about how we're developing our Vision for York.


1 York Academic Trust

2 Archbishop Coggan

3 Lord James

4 Lord James

5 Lord James annual report 1971-72