This was my talk to the Network of Directors of Faculty Operations/College Secretaries, hosted by the University of Leicester on 19/11/2014. “In this presentation I’ll try to introduce the idea of The University role in Civic Actions and Social Responsibility which will be a combination of my learned experiences of managing DMU Square Mile and as a student researching this area for my PhD. DMU Square Mile aims to connect the university with the community to deliver Civic Actions and Social Responsibility and is a great case study of how we demonstrate the public benefit, or public good as it is more commonly referred to, of a university.
My colleague, DMU Square Mile Operations Manager David Hollis will talk about how we undertake this in the next presentation.
The idea of Civic Actions and Social Responsibility is what many call public good. DMU Square Mile is based on an idea that demonstrates Higher Education as a public good. It’s an idea that dates back to the very first universities in central Europe, the oldest being the University of Bologna. The University of Bologna’s commitment to public good began in the 11th century was to study and research laws to protect communities against threats to their freedoms from empires or religions
Fast forward to nearly modern times and the initial idea still resonated. By the 1950s modern universities were being operated to deliver public good through benefits to their communities. (Anderson, 2010). I’m citing this work like you are actually going to go away and look it up. I just want you to know that I’m not making it up!
These universities were governed by prominent local figureheads to support their communities and ‘their purpose was learning not primarily for learning’s sake, but in order to enhance the competitiveness of local industry and commerce’. (Bernard B, Wend P and Todnem R,(2013). Over time this purpose evolved with an emphasis on teaching excellence, research, wealth creation and establishing ‘long-term, sustainable relationships with employers to stimulate and meet their demands for highly competent and skilled employees’ (HEFCE, 2011). And here we are in 2014 in the ever-changing landscape of HE – £9,000 fees bringing a new raft of challenges and an environment that doesn’t necessarily put public good at the top of the list of priorities.
Over the past few years, several studies have been done assessing the economic impacts of universities, but these studies have said little about the impacts specifically on disadvantaged communities. (Robinson F, Zass-Ogilvie I and Hudson R,(2012). If we park the economic impact to one side, the Civic Actions and Social Responsibility to deliver public good are done in a number of ways primarily linked to community engagement.
This engagement can be described as many things: Community engagement, Public engagement, public engagement with research and so on. That’s more engagements than Katie Price! But primarily getting the public involved for what should in theory be a mutual benefit of knowledge transfer. And most universities do attempt this in some form.
‘Many universities are supporting disadvantaged communities through their involvement with local organisations, student volunteering and widening participation programmes, and also through their teaching and research activities. However, practice is very uneven and there is a great deal of scope for further development.’(Robinson F, Zass-Ogilvie I and Hudson R, (2012).
More evidence for you there! There is no defined policy for Higher Education institutions to follow. However I should say many academics and students voluntarily elect to work with the community to improve research and learning outcomes. There is a National Co-coordinating Centre for Public Engagement (NCCPE) seeking to support a culture change in the Higher Education sector through its vision, mission and aims of a higher education sector ‘making a vital, strategic and valued contribution to 21st-century society through its public engagement activity.’(NCCPE, (2014). There are currently 163 Higher Education institutions in the United Kingdom (UniversitiesUK, 2013). Some researchers say these institutions can use their positions to attempt to tackle areas of social inequality or social exclusion.
‘Universities can do more. They can use their position to stimulate and promote debate – and ensure that the concerns of disadvantaged communities are heard and taken into account. They can also play a leading role in local regeneration – as Liverpool Hope University has done by developing an inner city campus and acting as a community development agency.’ (Robinson F, Zass-Ogilvie I and Hudson R, (2012)
For these academics, the argument is that universities should commit to public engagement. They believe it would benefit communities and that this poses opportunities for Higher Education that should be supported by the Government. I’m really proud of DMU Square Mile in that respect, DMU has made a commitment to public good and employed a team to deliver it by working with academics and faculty managers to create interesting an varied projects that engage and teach and that we as a place of learning can benefit from too. I read a report from a British university recently that proudly boasted that one million people had benefitted from its engagement activities over the course of just one academic year. This was by a university in a city with a population of just over 120,000, a large proportion of which are students. This bold claim of engagement might well have some truth to it, after all, a university city can be a famous place. Tourists might well flock to see it (I’m not naming names here can you tell), however one million were engaged people in one year? I believe they might have had one million visitors, but to what extent were they engaged? What was the actual public benefit?
How much is the impact of 5,000 visits to the university museum worth to society versus a handful of members of the public working with academics on an diabetes or asthma study, where the participants leave with a better knowledge of their health condition, and perhaps a better quality of life? Which is better impact?
Hundreds of happy faces leaving via the gift shop door? Or the few who support and benefit from potentially-world changing research? It’s not for me to say what is right or wrong and maybe the correct answer is both.
However, my personal view is that we need to remember we are representing Higher Education. There are big problems in the world, locally, nationally and internationally. Surely our purpose is to work with our communities, like our Italian forefathers did in 1033 to try to solve them. I think we have a responsibility to demonstrate actual impact or positive outcomes where we can. The REF and demands by funders for demonstrations of short-term impacts are positive steps.
I’m convinced the demonstrations of our impacts of work through university community projects like Brighton Community University Partnership, DMU Square Mile, and work at University of Manchester are a great attempt at demonstrating the true value of higher education and benefitting many people.
But I’ll end by saying that the relationships that institutions are creating with communities are breaking down barriers between town and gown, inspiring the next generation of undergraduates, enhancing research study though greater data collection and giving students a great learning experience. And I would say that is a worthwhile investment.”