I recently presented at the Annual Conference of the University Association of Life-long Learning at the University of Oxford. As I am not an academic, rather a practictioner as Head of Public Engagement at De Montfort University, I do not present things too often. In fact this was the first time I presented anything related to my PhD research. The University of Oxford was one of the pioneers of the University Extension movement in the United Kingdom. My presentation was in Rewley House, Oxford’s home of extramural activity where for over 100 years academics and communities have undertaken learning activities together (see photo). I was very proud to be presenting my work in such historic surroundings, if a little nervous. In my verbal introduction to the delegates, I explained that this research, done specifically for this particular conference, was an opportunity for me to investigate something that had been bugging me for a while. Namely, do the great things universities say are happening when they work with communities actually happen? Or do they assume they happened? As it was a conference for academics and practitioners, the research was written for a broad audience and the presentation was not particularly framed in the language of social science. With this in mind, if you have any questions about the detail or methodology, please tweet me @TheNewStatsman – otherwise here is the corresponding article I wrote for the presentation:
This paper looks at the public good of university lifelong learning activities in communities. It considers the definitions of public good and lifelong learning as well as how public engagement can help universities achieve their goal of sharing knowledge. The work explores the literature around the benefit of university-community engagement to identify a gap in the research that suggests there is little evidence to support the perceived public good of higher education.A case study of lifelong learners is then introduced to explore whether this activity is having the types of impacts implied by previous studies. Finally, the paper considers how this work will inform future research into the public good of higher education through lifelong learning and identifies the potential benefits of further study in this area.
Defining public good in Higher Education
There is a growing interest in how universities work with the public to pursue projects that aim to deliver mutual benefits of public good through engagement (Owen and Hill S, 2011; Watson, 2007; NCCPE, 2015). Definitions of the public good of Higher Education are contested and have evolved over hundreds of years. Some scholars, like Cardinal Newman, argued that knowledge benefitted society through creating cultivated graduates with good morals (History and Policy, 2010). Economists have since argued education could drive national technological progress and more recently the public good of higher education has been linked to social justice through social mobility (Williams, 2014). A US study of 217 descriptions of “higher education for the public good” that was provided by participants focused on the public role and responsibilities of higher education (Chambers & Gopaul, 2008). Five key themes emerged. These were:
- Higher Education and the Community – collaborative relationships and service
- Higher Education and Society – Economic benefits of education and education for work
- Higher Education and Knowledge – Knowledge creation and dissemination
- The Nature of Higher Education – creating democratic citizenship, civic participation of graduates, social responsibility, broad access and inclusiveness
- Institutions of Higher Education – Delivering change – expectation that universities will evolve to deliver public good relevant to society
It could be argued therefore that while public good in Higher Education is a long contested area there are recognisable themes of sharing knowledge, collaborations for community benefit and social responsibility and an expectation of universities to change how it works to meet these needs.
University community engagement
There are many different terms used to describe how universities engage with the wider community. In Auditing and Evaluating University–Community Engagement: Lessons from a UK Case Study (Hart & Northmore, 2011) university public engagement’; ‘community–university collaboration’; ‘evaluation, audit, higher education’; ‘evaluating university– community engagement’; and ‘evaluating public engagement’ were all used by the authors to conduct a review of the literature. However, the number of key words that can be used to describe the work is vast and the authors search was not exhaustive. Other common terms including Service-Learning, community-based learning, civic learning, scholarship of engagement, learning-linked volunteering are all terms which are frequently used by universities in the UK (Mason O‘Connor K, et al 2011). There are also a growing number of organisations using the term Citizen Science, where members of the public work with academic researchers on projects to gather data (British Science Association, 2015). The variations in definitions are problematic for researchers (Rowe & Frewer, 2005). To this end, this research refers to engagement as any way that a university connects with wider society for perceived learning benefit. In many cases it is argued that the mutual benefits of public engagement are linked to Lifelong Learning through the exchange knowledge (NCCPE, 2015) (AASCU, 2014) (NERCHE, 2015) (Bringle & Hatcher, 1995) (Rowe, et al., 2008) and many of the engagement methods listed are a focus of the Universities Association of Lifelong Learning mission in the United Kingdom (UALL 2015).
Definitions of lifelong learning
Like public good and university-community engagement, there are many definitions of lifelong learning. The the National Institute of Adult Community Education (NIACE) defines it as “practicing, studying or reading about something. It can also mean being taught, instructed or coached. This is so you can develop skills, knowledge, abilities or understanding,” (NIACE, 2015). The European Commission takes a broader definition that encompasses all learning activity undertaken throughout life, with the aim of improving knowledge, skills and competence, within a personal, civic, social and/or employment-related perspective (Hyde & Phillipson, 2014). However, in spite of the variety of definitions, most writers differentiate between three different forms of lifelong learning: formal, non-formal and informal (Bang, 2010):
- Formal learning – structured periods of learning
- Non-formal learning covers structured periods of learning that may include formative assessment but which do not lead to academic credit
- Informal learning refers to loosely structured periods of learning which rarely include assessment and which do not lead to the award of academic credit
In this paper, while all three forms of learning may be relevant, the types of public engagement discussed will typically involve non-formal or informal learning.
Public good and lifelong learning
There is a growing interest in how universities work with the public to pursue projects that aim to deliver mutual benefits through engagement (Owen and Hill S, 2011; Watson, 2007) Higher Education sees its third mission, beyond teaching and learning, as sharing its knowledge to benefit the wider public (Goddard J, 2009) (Boyer, 1990). How this is achieved can take many forms, with people taking part in research or learning in their communities (Robinson F, Zass-Ogilvie I, Hudson R., 2012). A large number of universities reference Lifelong Learning as a core engagement activity on their websites. A quick Google search reveals several pages of hits where life-long learning is referenced in universities’ outreach (Google, 2015).
The argument for engaging the public in Higher Education
Arguments for why universities should engage with communities are varied, ranging from the benefits they bring to the institution, or individual, to expectations that Higher Education has a social responsibility to work with others. The National Co-ordinating Centre for Public Engagement (NCCPE) argues it enriches the institution’s research, teaching and learning (NCCPE, 2015). It also helps institutions to demonstrate accountability in a climate of increasing scrutiny, sstrengthens brand and identity, and can increase public appreciation and support for higher education and for research. The NCCPE argues that it motivates and develops staff and students’ skills, enriches the student experience and helps keep staff and students in touch with social and ethical issues. For wider society, it argues the case of maximising the flow of knowledge and learning. It also contributes to social justice and corporate responsibility and can lead to a range of positive social outcomes, build trust and mutual understanding and generates unforeseen outcomes, and stimulates creativity and innovation. Embedding engagement in the core activities of the university can also position the university as a player in addressing the needs of different communities (Kotecha, 2010).
The problem with engagement
Questions are raised about the extent the claims of the benefits of university activity to the learner are evidenced. Engagement is now considered by some universities to be a necessity. It is argued that this is partly in response to a perceived loss of trust in governments and expert bodies in recent years (Rowe, et al., 2008). Public engagement, where the public (including stakeholder communities) are more directly involved in policy development and decision-making is vital to build trust and gain support for projects, they argue. The theoretical benefits of such enhanced involvement include:… better quality decisions (achieved through including lay knowledge and values); easier decisions (through pre-empting public discontent); greater trust in decision-makers (achieved through demonstrating concern for public views); and enhanced public and organizational knowledge (through mutual learning). (Rowe, et al, 2008, p420)Despite these perceived benefits Rowe notes that there was no empirical evidence supplied to support the claims of such outcomes.There is a gap in the literature to suggest that universities cannot back up claims of positive impact to local communities through engagement. Questions are also raised over whether participants in engagement become the object of university work, instead of being an equal partner and beneficiary (Mason et al, 2011). The authors argue more research is required to explore and evaluate the benefits of engagement to learners to further identify, develop and share practice in this area.
By evaluating activities, there is the potential to better record and demonstrate outcomes (Manchester Beacon, 2011).Arguments for evaluation are often around ways in which universities can learn from their activities and improve services. There is also a trend amongst project and research funders to require evaluations at the end of engagement activities (NCCPE, 2015). In doing so, the report adds that it will give staff the opportunity to recognise whether they achieved what they set out to, how well they did it, what impact the activity had and to be able to reflect critically on both the activities and processes to benefit future projects. The report adds that information could also be used to demonstrate achievements. Like other reports, the main benefit of evaluations was said to be their use in improving future projects as well as having the ability to promote the value of the work (benefits, outcomes and impact) to participants, interested parties, the media, directors and funders. It could be argued that cases put forward for evaluation serve the needs of the university better than those of the participants, helping staff understand what works to achieve their goals, satisfying needs of funders and demonstrating the work to parties interested in the work of the university.
In order to consider whether the perceived benefits of public good to a university and the theoretical outcomes to participant have merit, a questionnaire was complied to investigate these points. The survey was derived from what has previously been described in this paper as the definitions of public good of higher education, the suggested benefits to the institution and the suggested personal benefits to the participant. Sixteen people who would fall into the category of Informal learning of life-long learner were surveyed. Learner ages ranged from 18 years old to over 75 years old participating in free IT lessons delivered by students volunteering on De Montfort University’s outreach programme DMU Square Mile students in two community centres. One in Highfields, Leicester, the other in Leicester City Centre. All participants were from Black, Minority, Ethnic communities (BME). The learners included four refugees and asylum seekers. Nine men and seven women participated. Most had attended the free IT lessons for several weeks,
As part of the questionnaire, the learners were asked to Strongly Disagree, Disagee, Don’t know, Agree or strongly agree with the following statements:
- I feel more positively about the university since taking part in these learning sessions.
- By participating in this learning session the university will be able to know better what the public needs.
- Since taking part in these learning sessions I understand the work university more
- Since taking part in these lessons I trust the university more
- I feel like an equal partner with the university in this activity
- I feel the university students or staff that work with me are benefitting too
- I feel taking part in these lessons will improve my life in some way
- Taking part will improve my chances of getting a new job
- I feel this session is an appropriate way for a university to share its knowledge
- Participating in these sessions improves my sense of community
- The university should be doing this type of work with the community as part of its contribution to society
- These sessions have increased my confidence that I could attend university
- Since doing these sessions I would encourage others to consider studying at a university
- This learning activity is relevant to the needs of my community
- I feel more positively about the university since taking part in these learning sessions. 100% agreed or agreed strongly
- By participating in this learning session the university will be able to know better what the public needs. 5% agreed or agreed strongly – 12.5% did not know
- Since taking part in these learning sessions I understand the work university more 81% Agreed strongly – 19% Did not know
- Since taking part in these lessons I trust the university more 94% agreed or agreed strongly. 6% disagreed
- I feel like an equal partner with the university in this activity 100% agreed or agreed strongly
- I feel the university students or staff that work with me are benefitting too 100% agreed or agreed strongly
- I feel taking part in these lessons will improve my life in some way 100% agreed or agreed strongly
- Taking part will improve my chances of getting a new job 5% agreed or agreed strongly, 12.5 per cent did not know
- I feel this session is an appropriate way for a university to share its knowledge 100% agreed or agreed strongly
- Participating in these sessions improves my sense of community 100% agreed or agreed strongly
- The university should be doing this type of work with the community as part of its contribution to society 100% agreed or agreed strongly
- These sessions have increased my confidence that I could attend university 75% agreed or agreed strongly 12.5% disagreed or strongly disagreed, 12.5% did not know
- Since doing these sessions I would encourage others to consider studying at a university 81% agreed or agreed strongly, 6% disagreed, 12.5% did not know
- This learning activity is relevant to the needs of my community 100% agreed or agreed strongly
From the findings, it could be argued that the learners broadly backed the perceived benefits of public engagement in higher education. The sample survey however was admittedly small and focused on one specific group of learners. On one hand, you could consider these results to be a little flat and uncontroversial as they support existing literature that suggested these outcomes. However, it could also be argued that some of the findings are significant, particularly in issues of trust, for example, at a time when trust in in many public institutions is decreasing. (Committee on Standards in Public Life, 2014). Building people’s confidence that they could study at university is also significant at a time when part time adult learning in HE is in decline (UniversitiesUK, 2013). Scores for agreeing that the learners felt like an equal partner in activities is important and appreciating that students were benefitting from the activity were high. This did not support literature that suggested learners risked becoming the object of university work (Mason et al, 2011), in this instance at least. All participants agreed that taking part improved their life in some way – supporting the research that the public good of higher education could have economic benefits and serve the community. The majority of findings backed the five key themes of public good identified by Chambers & Gopaul and underpinned existing theories that university public engagement activities benefit universities as well as communities.
How this is informing research
This was a small sample survey that would need to be broadened in size and activity type to get a more informed picture of the public good of lifelong learning in higher education. The findings present the opportunity to dig deeper to research issues around improving trust in university work. The survey also found that participants who are improving their life in some way or increasing chances of getting a job. These learners could potentially be experiencing new opportunities of social mobility or economic improvement in their life that should be potentially investigated further, and over a longer period of time. Finally, the strengthening of support for the work of a university, trust and improved understanding of higher education could be considered a useful publicity and branding tool in an era of increased marketisation. This could to potentially increase the number of universities engaging with communities to offer public good through lifelong learning at a time when public services are reducing. (Financial Times, 2015) (Local Government Association, 2014).
There is a growing interest in how universities work with communities, particularly in relation to lifelong learning activities. It could be argued that many of the objectives of lifelong learning, as set out by organisations like NIACE and the European Commission can be achieved through university-public engagement in learning activities or research. Higher Education sees its third mission, beyond teaching and learning, as sharing its knowledge to benefit the wider public. Most universities, through their websites, appear to deliver lifelong learning opportunities to offer outreach to their communities. Evaluating this type of work is problematic as universities do not follow a template, nor do they have a broad focus on gathering feedback. Questionnaires often seek information that benefit the host institution or allows them to improve the activities they offer. Theoretically participants benefit from any improvement to activities, however the extent of any personal benefit is rarely captured. The findings of the case study questionnaires suggest that there is a positive mutual benefit to both the university and participant and the wider communities. However, the survey was limited to a small group of adult learners and did not investigate implied benefits of improving job prospects, social mobility or personal and economic wellbeing enough. Further research into these areas could lead to interesting results that could further strengthen the position of higher education in society and play a significant role in supporting communities at a time when public services are contracting. It could be argued that by undertaking this work, universities could increase its audience and increase the intake of mature and part-time learners and offer a valuable benefit to society.
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