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Universities have always had a civic role to play, COVID has made that role even more important

  • 9 November 2020
  • By Lynn Dobbs

This blog was kindly contributed by Lynn Dobbs, Vice-Chancellor and Chief Executive of London Met University

I have always held the belief that universities have a civic duty to the areas in which they are based. Institutions are not just part of that area, but part of the community within it and in recent years we have seen a much-needed emphasis on this role. As a sector, we have become more aware of our ability to act as a pillar of support not just for our students but for our neighbours. The COVID outbreak earlier in the year placed renewed urgency on this role.

Our communities are facing new challenges, or old challenges are arising in more extreme ways. At the beginning of the crisis, people were struggling to access the food and supplies they needed as shelves were left bare of necessities. Parents became teachers overnight – home-schooling children while juggling work. For those who could not work because they lost their jobs, affording the basics such as food and rent has become more of a struggle. As universities committed to supporting our local areas and as the COVID crisis continues, we must adapt to these new or increased challenges and ensure that we are offering meaningful support that reflects the changing needs of our communities.

At London Met, we are aware that our role as a civic institution is one element of a wider community support network. We know that we cannot meaningfully support our local area without working with the community, engaging with partners and driving forward initiatives and change together. That’s why we are excited to be hosting an event with HEPI on the 10 November to bring together sector stakeholders, policy influencers and local government to discuss how we can all work together to support our communities during the COVID crisis. 

We’ll be sharing the work of the London Met Lab, a newly formed group which is the engine driving forward our civic work. The London Met Lab focuses on six key challenges faced by London, some of which have been exacerbated by the COVID crisis:

  1. Discrimination;
  2. Health Improvement;
  3. Social Wealth;
  4. Poverty & Deprivation;
  5. Crime; and
  6. The Environment.

As a university we have access to a wealth of expertise through our academics. Where they have extensive knowledge in an area connected to one of these challenges, they have volunteered to be Challenge Champions, a role in which they will drive forward research and advocate for creative, evidence-based solutions. This means that our research has real life value that can be used to understand and tackle the challenges facing our community. We believe that this solutions-focused approach that listens to and works with our community is a key element of being an effective civic institution. We know others feel the same, and our event tomorrow presents a valuable opportunity to explore and discuss this.

During the event, I will be joined by Director of HEPI, Nick Hillman, and a panel of speakers including; Lord Kerslake, Chair of the Civic University Network Advisory Group & Chair of the Board of Governors for Sheffield Hallam University; Councillor Janet Burgess MBE, Mayor of Islington; Shakira Martin, Former President of the NUS; and Rt Hon. Justine Greening, Co-founder of the Social Mobility Pledge and former Secretary of State for Education to discuss how we can effectively work together to support our communities during COVID. We will examine how our role as civic universities has changed as a result of COVID, and how communities’ needs have shifted, exploring how we can engage with this shift meaningfully.

If the higher education sector is serious about our civic role, there has never been a more important time to show it. Communities need support and by working together with community leaders, local governments, partner organisations and sector stakeholders, we can and must make a difference.

Register for the webinar here: How can universities support their local communities during the Coronavirus pandemic? London Met Uni x HEPI Webinar

12pm-1pm, Tuesday 10 November

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