Across all of the UK’s public services, there is a growing movement towards greater engagement with the communities they serve. To some extent, this is happening in response to challenges such as funding cuts, increased competition, and from a national reassessment of their economic and social role. To some extent, it is happening because many public services are fundamentally seeing themselves differently – as more open, and more collaborative than they have been traditionally.
In the past, engagement with local communities has not always come naturally to universities – traditionally, the ‘university’ and the ‘community’ are treated as separate entities. But in order to distinguish and renew themselves, universities need to join other public service institutions in responding to these growing expectations of community collaboration, recognising the value of the untapped resource on their doorsteps.
In 1997, the government-commissioned Dearing Report described local engagement by universities as ‘patchy’, and recommended a turn to ‘active and systematic engagement’. Little had changed by 2010, when a report by Newcastle University found that ‘university-community engagement remains peripheral in terms of universities’ organisation, funding, management and strategic control, reducing their benefits for excluded communities’. It’s not that nothing is happening, but for the most part universities are neither offering as much as they might to communities, nor benefiting as much as they might from them.
In this context, De Montfort University in Leicester demonstrates the potential benefits, to both sides, for university engagement with local communities. In September 2011 it launched the Square Mile project, a mix of research and interventions focused on a small area of high deprivation within walking distance of the university. The project places a premium on collaboration between the university’s staff and students, local residents and the local authority, and aims not just to have an impact on a single area but to demonstrate how the skills, knowledge and expertise of any university can improve the wellbeing of local people.
University researchers began the project by speaking to hundreds of Square Mile residents about their experiences of living in the area.
Social capital surveys conducted by community volunteers found that many residents felt disconnected and powerless to influence decisions made about their neighbourhood. They were concerned about crime, anti-social behaviour, the visible decline of their neighbourhood, the absence of good jobs, and their own employment prospects. One local simply said, ‘I want to magic [myself ] away from the area’.
But they also articulated a clear, shared vision for what the neighbourhood could become and how the university could contribute: local people needed to communicate more about gaps in local provision and make a difference by working together; the university could help support these conversations and provide a structure for action.
University staff and students put forward over 150 ideas for projects that could respond to these needs, including introducing community projects, promoting staff and student volunteering and helping new resident groups to develop and flourish. Twenty projects were launched in September 2011.
Many of these are focused on education. University staff have taught 200 primary school children about looking after their finances, and are running a robot-designing club for secondary school students. The Centre for English Language Learning is providing free English language classes to help residents improve their command of English and their CV-writing and interview skills.
There are health projects as well. The Department of Audiology offers free hearing tests in community centres, with follow-up consultations. Student midwifes are promoting breastfeeding.
The university’s students provide a particularly rich resource. Law students are providing free legal information to residents, and residents are working with departments as co-researchers, mapping the area’s history and developing ideas for transforming the built environment.
So far, more than 200 university staff and students have given their time as volunteers, and participants report a notable increase in their sense of ‘belonging’ to the institution. Meanwhile, Square Mile is inspiring new residents’ groups, who are challenging local decision-makers – a marked contrast to the sense of powerlessness that residents expressed during the initial community consultation.
The De Montfort model is a powerfully simple idea, founded on the application of familiar resources to an unfamiliar context. It’s not news to anybody that universities have access to world class knowledge, skills, expertise and resources, but De Montfort’s innovation is to apply these assets to the needs of its neighbours. It is reconceptualising who the university is for, what it can provide, and how it can provide it.
And of course, the university itself stands to benefit from the knowledge, insights, and skills of the people who live near it.
This shift rests on a vision of the university as a ‘public good’ that goes beyond the traditional concepts of elite education and cutting-edge research – it requires a readjustment of who the ‘public’ is. In contrast to the ‘cordial but distant’ or ‘gifts from on-high’ attitudes of most universities, Square Mile has shown that a university can also be an innovative and creative good neighbour.
In a climate where the onus is increasingly on institutions to prove their worth, universities ignore this kind of local interaction at their peril. By forging connections to areas of life that potential applicants, staff or supporters already understand and value – as De Montfort is doing in the Square Mile – they can generate special kinds of character and value. If the success of universities in the past has been to succeed despite the world beyond their walls, the challenge now is to succeed in partnership with that world.
This is based on an article from Blue Skies UK 2012, an ongoing collection of new ideas about the future of higher education by the Pearson Think Tank. See all the articles and videos for free at http://pearsonblueskies.com.