How city university recognises and repays its founders - a century later

Following the signing of the Civic University Agreement, Professor Dave Petley (Vice-President for Research and Innovation) consider the University's role as a civic university for the 21st century, committed as ever to our founding mission

Cycling route on campus

The University of Sheffield was born out of the generosity and ambition of the local communities it has served for more than a century. That’s why we are a signing a new, national compact that reaffirms an historic commitment made in the late 19th century – when industry leaders and workers in the steel mills, factories and mines united behind a civic ideal – to bring the ‘highest education’ within the reach of all the people.

To this day, a plaque at the entrance to Firth Court pays tribute to the ‘citizens of Sheffield’ who donated the equivalent of £15m to establish an institution accessible to rich and poor alike: an institution that would improve the health and wellbeing of the people; drive innovation and growth in local industries; and help the nation in its trading relations around the world.

While our 19th century founders might not understand the huge advances in medicine since the Sheffield Medical School joined with the Technical School and Firth College to become a fully-fledged University in 1905, they would fully understand and applaud the civic commitment the institution they created has given to improving the health and wellbeing of Sheffield’s citizens.

From the training of apprentice nurses to the creation of interdisciplinary research teams interacting with patient groups to find cures for intractable diseases, the University of Sheffield has been steadfast in its commitment to medical progress.

Every day our institution recognises and repays the generosity of those who funded the University. Our staff and students do this by giving their time and effort as volunteers, raising money to improve the life-chances of our fellow citizens, such as the £2 million raised to establish a new MRI-PET facility at the Royal Hallamshire Hospital: the first of its kind in Yorkshire and a technology vital to transforming our understanding of serious diseases and the way we treat them.

But being civic is not just an add-on; it is integral to our teaching and research. Social accountability is an essential aspect of our medical students’ studies. They engage with local communities across South Yorkshire – working with over 60 charities, organisations and services, from a boxing club on one of Sheffield’s most deprived estates, to a support service for refugees fleeing violence.

Our founders would also applaud the close association we have with industry. After all, it was steel magnate Mark Firth, owner of the largest rolling mill in the city at the time, who was a prime mover behind the establishment of the university.

Firth would have marvelled at how the University of Sheffield’s Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre has transformed the site of the old Orgreave coking plant into a high-value, high-tech cluster of manufacturing companies linked to aerospace, automotive and space: turning a scene of industrial dereliction into one of optimism and hope through research and innovation.

Northern Powerhouse Minister, Jake Berry, recently declared that what has happened at Orgreave is nothing short of a ‘profound transformation.’ When he talks to the Prime Minister about what the North could become he directs her to the civic example set by the AMRC.

The companies gathering around our advanced manufacturing and engineering facilities, including Rolls-Royce and McLaren, is the nucleus of a fast-growing Advanced Manufacturing Innovation District, recognised by the Brookings Institution’s Bruce Katz.

Only last year, the research and innovation talents of the AMRC were critical to Boeing establishing its first production facility in Europe on the site of the long defunct Sheffield airport. Not only that, almost half of Boeing’s staff are young apprentices from the AMRC Training Centre: bringing high-value jobs to a new generation of engineers.

To date, we have trained 1,300 manufacturing apprentices, putting more than £20 million a year in wages into the homes of the most disadvantaged districts. We are also developing new talent for more than 300 manufacturing firms across the region.

But life is more than mere toil. Through a programme of city-wide events, we are an essential ingredient in Sheffield’s cultural vibrancy. The highlight is the Festival of the Mind which brings the city’s diverse communities together in a shared exchange of ideas, knowledge and creativity.

At its heart, Sheffield is a civic university for the 21st century and we remain as committed as ever to our founding mission. Through signing the Civic University Agreement, we again reaffirm our pledge to the city.

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