This blog was kindly contributed by Sophie Cloutterbuck, Director of London Engagement, London Metropolitan University.
Over the last two years, there has been a movement to draw attention to the role of universities as civic institutions. The Civic University Commission was set up by UPP Foundation in 2018. The Foundation supports projects that help foster partnership and collaboration between universities and their local communities and we were keen to be one of the first universities to sign up. The current crisis has intensified this focus and led to a number of universities putting more emphasis on their relationships with their communities.
At the end of May, the UPP Foundation, together with a number of charities, called on the government to create a ‘Civic Army’ to provide six months paid work to ‘support local communities and to address the risk of mass youth unemployment, while also being supported to engage with, or remain in, higher education’.
London Metropolitan University’s (London Met) long-held commitment to widening participation means that many of our students already face significant obstacles in their daily lives as they juggle work and caring responsibilities with their studies, or navigate an unfamiliar environment as the first in their families to go to university. These challenges have only been exacerbated in recent months.
Last year, we became one of the first institutions to sign up to UPP’s Civic Universities pledge. From our perspective, the purpose of the pledge is to underline how many institutions across the sector already give back to their communities and to focus the minds of universities on making sure they show this commitment more overtly.
It goes without saying that the research being produced by universities often has a direct impact on their local communities. For example, at London Met we have helped influence legislation on domestic abuse through our Child and Woman Abuse Studies Unit and King’s College London have helped shape the Mayor of London’s clean air strategies through their world-class research – these are just two examples and many more can be found through recent UUK impact campaigns.
Universities aren’t only conducting research, but institutions across the country are increasingly looking at how they can partner with their communities and carry out more place-based research, outreach and activities together to address the challenges in the local area. This is done through a holistic approach including community members and university staff, students, buildings and expertise.
For some, partnerships like this can be straightforward, but for others it can be more challenging. Reacting to the needs of a community sometimes requires universities to engage outside of their comfort zone. The University of Lincoln has been an excellent example of this, working with their local community after the divisive Brexit vote in 2016.
In a blog for Universities UK last year, Professor Toby Wilkinson, Deputy Vice-Chancellor of the University of Lincoln said:
In every sphere, partnerships are key… we can only help to realise the aspirations of our communities by working with them, in a genuine dialogue.
Since the unwelcome arrival of COVID-19, institutions across the country have faced some profound existential challenges. The crisis has also brought to the fore how institutions engage in dialogue with their local communities and the extent to which they are expected to partner with them to tackle local challenges.
Soon after London Met moved to remote delivery in March, we wrote to a number of our local partners to offer them our support. We were not prescriptive on what that support would look like, but we wanted them to know we were willing to listen and work together. We were overwhelmed by the positive response we had to those emails.
We believe in the role a large institution like ours plays within a community. We see our role as a civic institution, to partner with local government, charities, social enterprises and small businesses to work together to tackle some of the challenges London faces. We are very lucky to have partners across London with whom we have built this type of mutually beneficial relationship.
Of course, this work is not entirely altruistic. Local organisations can benefit from our expertise and in turn they can support our students by providing research opportunities, mentoring and work-related learning placements that help them with their current studies and prepare them for the world of work.
We have found that it is important to have an open mind when building these partnerships. No two organisations have the same needs or ideas about how the partnership should work. We have tried to be flexible in the way we work and really listen to what our partners need.
Getting it done
One of the main lessons we have learned is that creating a two-way conversation with the local community is vitally important. We think the key to becoming a truly civic university is a ‘bottom-up’ process, starting with the needs and challenges of our partners and the local area. Having a strong commitment from senior leadership within the University also makes a big difference. Our Vice-Chancellor, Professor Lynn Dobbs, personally started a number of conversations with organisations and groups in our community – they told us what their challenges were and how we can work together on them through upskilling, reskilling or support. This has been our starting point.
In the course of mapping out the needs of our community against our expertise, we have discovered a range of work currently happening; including research opportunities, joint outreach and work related learning placements and staff involved as school governors, charity volunteers, and sports coaches – and we are only just scratching the surface.
Since the outbreak of COVID-19 in particular, our wider community has shown a great deal of creativity and resilience. From donating protective equipment from our Science Centre and sewing protective masks, translating medical notes for clinical drug trials in the community, to one of our PhD students volunteering in a hospital lab, we are very proud of what our community is doing to help.
Another vital element of building effective partnerships is to make sure the mode of your engagement matches the values of the institution. Embedded in our strategy, we feel it is our role to act as catalysts for action and as connectors between disparate groups. We have found that colleagues, partners and students are keen to be involved, we just need to empower that enthusiasm. Giving the wider community a voice from the start helps people to feel more invested. Listening to stakeholders and giving them input into decision making can galvanise more support for civic engagement.
I would also encourage you to make connections with other institutions in your region. You will find so many ways you can learn from each other and collaborate to help your communities in the best way possible. We have been building relationships with City, University of London, Queen Mary University of London, the University of East London, and King’s College London and found them to be incredibly open, collegiate and proactive in this area.
COVID-19 has presented universities with profound and existential challenges many of which are yet to present themselves. The sector has been making regular headlines with rife speculation about modes of delivery of the 2020/21 academic year. It is clear that the large amount of good work that universities are undertaking does not translate into positive public sentiment.
With all the challenges it has brought, the COVID-19 crisis has also helped universities find their community spirit and brought about a wave of action. The question now is how to keep the momentum going when the crisis is over.