With universities under great scrutiny to demonstrate how they serving their communities during the Covid-19, I thought this would be a good time to talk about the work currently being undertaken at De Montfort University, Leicester.
Many commentators have been quite vocal in the higher education sector media during the lockdown, calling for universities to demonstrate their value to their cities and regions. These posts have largely come from a national leadership perspective so I just wanted to share experiences of helping to create a truly civic response from a local practitioner perspective.
On Friday, I tweeted this:
I wanted to try to capture the work (that I am aware of) undertaken in the past few weeks by the university towards supporting the city of Leicester and beyond in the pandemic.
Recently the National Co-ordinating Centre for Public Engagement posted a useful and thoughtful piece on its website saying universities are: “…reconsidering the importance of engagement. Whilst engagement needs to adapt too, its importance in the current climate could not be clearer”. As my primary role for the university is public engagement, these words really resonate.
Public engagement at DMU has always been a high priority. The pandemic has given DMU the opportunity to rethink how we connect with our communities, but more importantly it allowed staff and students to do meaningful work for the good of our city in a time of real need. Admittedly, my tweet on Friday did not do this justice so I want to expand on that.
Yes, there’s been a lot of time talking on Teams, but there has also been a lot of time spent doing, making, volunteering, promoting and sharing. For myself and the public engagement team at DMU, it has been some of the busiest times of our careers. It has also been a rewarding time, allowing us to interact with so many staff who have come forward, willing to play a part in the university’s response.
Rethinking engagement in our communities
It has also allowed us to rethink engagement in our communities, switching events online where we can. I believe some of this work will shape the future of community engagement, sure we want to go back to the tried and tested human interaction but we have seen how online and streaming activities are a far greater tool than were ever appreciated before (ask Joe Wicks…) I can’t hope to capture all the good things DMU has done so far but I can highlight some of the public engagement activities that I have been involved in so far that go towards answering some of the questions raised earlier about value of universities and civic responses.
From the outset of the coronavirus outbreak in the UK, DMU was immediately able to mobilise a team of 200+ staff and student volunteers willing to work with local community groups on relief responses including delivering food and medicine and checking in on vulnerable people.
There is already a huge volunteering ethos at DMU and new partnerships and approaches to volunteering (e.g. phone calls to vulnerable isolated people) will stay with us into the next academic year and beyond.
Personal Protective Equipment
The university, through its Faculty of Health and Life Sciences has a long-standing close-working relationship with the city’s NHS services. Some immediate responses saw a supply of 200 nurses to the city’s hospitals and donations of kit and Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) strengthening existing relationships.
Staff from the Arts, Design and Humanities and Computing, Engineering and Media faculties then began 3-D printing PPE to NHS specification:
Hundreds have now been produced and delivered. Concurrent to the 3-D printing of PPE, the university has worked in partnership with 3-D Crowd – a charity formed by DMU alumni, to create a distribution centre in a university building to source and deliver vital kit to hospitals and care homes.
This is in full operation and has taught us a lot about repurposing a space and working collaboratively at speed.
One of the success stories of public engagement pre-lockdown was the development of a network of arts clubs for young people across Leicester. Since the pandemic, the public engagement team has worked with the artists to create online arts sessions and keep the creative sessions running.
This is something that we may seek to continue post-lockdown to connect more communities with the arts clubs.
Working to ‘build back better’
Another key initiative we are leading is how to after the pandemic and support key organisations and community groups to survive and thrive by developing new projects, research and ideas that set out a recovery plan for the city in the short, medium and long-term. More than 70 academics have been meeting online to discuss potential ways forward. I believe this could pave a way to new forms of public engagement post-Covid-19 and we work with communities at grass-roots level to co-create projects for the initiative.
Public Engagement in Research moving online
Public lectures, seminars and talks by PhD students and academics are moving online in the short-term with public engagement staff working with Events specialists to create interactive sessions through software like Microsoft Teams. This is already presenting opportunities for targeting interest groups and local communities to participate, as well as developing International reach.
With universities under great scrutiny to demonstrate how they are interacting, serving their communities, coronavirus has created opportunities to respond in new ways and demonstrate impact. From the work undertaken at DMU, like those mentioned here, it has also allowed us to try new forms of engagement and develop of new partnerships at a time when working with communities and partners was at risk of being severely reduced.