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Reaching out: how to prioritise community engagement within higher education

  • 17 February 2023
  • By Fiona Walsh
  • This guest blog has been written for HEPI by Fiona Walsh, Partnerships and Development Director at Student Hubs, which is a national charity, working in partnership with universities to deliver social action programmes which support higher education students to engage with social and environmental challenges.

Earlier this month, HEPI and the UPP Foundation released a report on public attitudes towards higher education and the results show a lack of engagement with the benefits and advantages of the higher education sector, particularly among those who are semi-skilled and unskilled, casual workers and pensioners.

The polling shows ‘only 18% of our sample had visited a university in the 2021/22 academic year, with those in AB (28%) social groups significantly more likely to have done so compared to DE (11%).’ 

But is this surprising? It is clear not all of the current ways of working are not fit for purpose if we really want to prioritise social mobility and stronger engagement with the higher education sector as a whole in our communities. 

It is easy to say the pandemic has complicated matters in how universities engage with their communities, and it has been challenging to run events and activities which engage young people and their families with what higher education has to offer. But the polling accounts for this, and when asked about behaviours before March 2020, ‘38% had never visited a university in England before that date and over a quarter had visited more than 5 years ago (27%). Over half (57%) of those in the lowest social grade (DE) said they had never visited a university in England, and women were more likely to never have visited than men (45% vs 32%)’. This shows that we are still not getting the basics right. 

Many approaches at the moment through public engagement, knowledge exchange or widening participation activities focus heavily on the public crossing the threshold of the university campus or this activity happening directly in schools. 

It is not enough to ask the community to come to us. Universities are complicated at the best of times: they have multiple buildings, can be spread across vast locations, may not have a clear ‘entrance’ that non-graduates would typically recognise and existing preconceptions make these places feel scary and threatening. 

Additionally, community members looking to reach the university might face other barriers. Parking is usually not straightforward on local campuses, or travel may involve getting on a bus route which those community members have never been on before, if they have the funds to make these journeys in the first place. Transport to any public on-campus events have to be free and should provide options for picking up families from their own communities. There is a reason why in Student Hubs’ Branch Up programme, which works with referred 7 to 11 year olds in Southampton, we use taxis and coaches to pick up young people from their schools on Saturdays. We have no expectation that a family should be able to get their child to the university, and that burden should never be on them in the first place. 

The burden of proof is on us for why these young people and families should engage with our delivery, not the other way around. 

Student Hubs have been taking this approach in our work for the past fifteen years. A key part of our model is creating opportunities for students to work directly with communities in their local spaces, sending students into local schools, community centres, libraries, residential spaces and care homes. When activities happen on campus, this is primarily to address the barriers students may face to extracurricular opportunities, and we speak to our community partners about why we make these decisions. 

The need for the sector to do more inclusive work with our communities is not a new argument. Various people in the sector have been championing the need for change for a while; Alex Blower spoke about this need to go beyond the school gates in 2021 and has been doing excellent work in the sector as Head of Widening Participation at Arts University Bournemouth. Richard Brabner, Director of the UPP Foundation, was also calling for a ‘One Nation University’ approach in 2021 which focused on ‘spreading opportunity; reducing division; and building community.’ How far have we come since then?

Across the sector there are lots of individuals who are doing incredible work at their institutions, and do believe in this mission. What I am reflecting on here is not the capacity of individuals to make change in their local universities, but the systemic and fundamental changes to our approach which need to come from our universities’ senior leadership teams and through the budget allocated to these activities.  

Many universities wrote their Civic University Agreements and committed to a Student Futures Manifesto from the work the UPP Foundation and the Civic University Network has done over the past two years. This is an achievement. But it is not enough to simply commit to a document or agreement: the strategy has to be delivered, and it has to have sufficient resourcing and design behind it. 

How are universities reminding communities about their value if they are not even paying their staff (who most likely live locally) a living wage, as Jonathan Grant says in this article about ‘civic washing’? 

Widening participation teams, and broader teams across universities, are in the process of reviewing their Access and Participation Plans for 2023 and beyond. But are these plans prioritising the essential work that needs to be done physically inside the communities these universities reside in? 

One of the key activities we have delivered at Student Hubs since 2017, funded by the UPP Foundation, are One Community Forums. These listening events enable students, community members and universities to gather in the same space to discuss and co-create solutions collectively to local challenges. At all the events we have run with our university partners, including in our latest knowledge exchange partnership with Leeds Conservatoire, we heard that communities want activities to happen in their spaces. They want students to come to them, and think building trust in this way is key to developing deeper relationships with the institution where on-campus activity could happen. 

Perhaps one of the most concerning metrics in the polling was that ‘a fifth (22%) agree with the statement “A university degree is a waste of time”, and younger respondents were more likely than older to agree that a degree was a waste of time – 32% of 18-to-24 year olds compared to 20% of 55-to-64 year olds and only 14% of 65 year olds.’ If we want young people to understand that university is a viable option for them in their expectations of the future, and plan for this with their families in their academic careers, then we have to focus on what intervention work needs to happen. There is a reason why much of our engagement with local schools and young people happens at primary level at Student Hubs, as providing sustained engagement with students at ages 7-to-11 supports children and their families to develop their understanding of what university means and build near-to-peer relationships with students.

But as a charity that works through funded university partnerships, our reach is always going to be smaller in scale than what universities themselves can achieve. We love working in partnership and want to grow what we do – but in order to meet our mission of embedding student social action, we need universities to take hold of their civic mantles. We would encourage university teams to review their ways of working, sit down and have challenging conversations with their communities, and be willing to send their resources and investment beyond the campus. 

If institutions are not willing to prioritise these fundamental outreach efforts, then the results of HEPI and the UPP Foundation’s polling on these issues is not likely to change any time soon. 

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