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What Universities Can Learn from Artistic Citizenship in Practice

  • 30 November 2023
  • By Fiona Walsh McDonnell
  • This blog was kindly written for HEPI by Fiona Walsh McDonnell (LinkedIn), Partnerships and Development Director at the charity Student Hubs, which supports students to engage in social action in their community.

In September, GuildHE launched a report which called on the sector to address the balance for small and specialist institutions receiving funding to support their knowledge exchange activities, with these activities being transformative for institutions’ approach to their communities, to student engagement, and in the impact they could make in meeting ‘growth ambitions across the whole country’.

As Student Hubs was a partner of Leeds Conservatoire in how they used their one-off knowledge exchange funding across 2021-22 and 2022-23 through our One Community Forum model, we have seen first-hand the value that this funding and the subsequent partnership opportunities can bring. We want to share more about what this funding enabled for Leeds Conservatoire, particularly how artistic citizenship could shape their local activities and practise in this area, and how the learnings from this work are relevant for the whole sector. 

From 16 to 17 June 2022, Leeds Conservatoire hosted a conference titled Artistic Citizenship Forum: Co-Creating a Flexible Definition. Dr Jacob Thompson-Bell’s report from the conference and research was released in February 2023, and there are a range of recommendations provided for the sector around how artistic citizenship could be the bridge for sustained and engaging civic activities which reach students, communities, and the creative industries. We participated in the Artistic Citizenship Forum as well as holding our own One Community Forum in 2022.

Teamwork makes the dream work

Recommendation 1 of the report highlights that ‘centres of arts practice, research and education should focus on forming transdisciplinary partnerships with other sectors and disciplines’. With the Office for Students encouraging the redesigning of Access and Participation Plans to include more partnership working, and the need to focus on supporting graduate outcomes and skills, diversifying and innovating current activities for students both in-curricular and extracurricular are key to meeting this need.

Equal partnership is vital for these activities to work, and crucially to innovate. Universities have excellent resources and capacity to engage communities, but without the work to build trust in these communities, to listen and understand community challenges, or to learn from expertise about key social issues, the work a higher education institution can do on its own will always be limited.

One of the ways in which Student Hubs supported Leeds Conservatoire in our partnership is through being able to approach community organisations to understand more about their needs and barriers to partnership with the university. Through our partnership, we were able to translate our understanding of what their challenges were to what was feasible for Leeds Conservatoire to support both in the short-term and longer- term through their knowledge exchange activities. If we are to tackle ‘wicked problems’, we need bold solutions and these cannot be produced in a silo.

We need to think more broadly about skill development for students

Recommendation 2 of the report shares that ‘centres of arts education should think critically about the skills their graduates will need to remain adaptable and resilient in transdisciplinary contexts’. When considering what kind of training and support musicians need, the Artistic Citizenship Forum found that ‘there might be an emphasis on active learning, the cultivation of aptitudes, and self-determination, thus supporting students to create an environment suitable for their own development.’ In Student Hubs’ activities, we find large benefits for students in delivering these learning opportunities in new ways through volunteering, placements, or live briefs as part of curriculum design, which students broadly respond well to and which provides the necessary ‘cultivation of aptitudes and self-determination’ to make these experiences meaningful. Taking academic and soft skills into different contexts from study can also support students to synthesise their academic learning.

In April 2023, we matched a Leeds Conservatoire student with a challenge brief from a local arts charity, the Geraldine Connor Foundation, to provide free student consultancy and volunteer their expertise. The student said they ‘really enjoyed it!’ and when asked about their experience, they agreed they developed professional skills from the activity, including planning and organising. Among other skills, they agreed they gained increased confidence; improved their ability to adapt and overcome challenges; and enhanced their university experience.

This was a very small example with an engaged student, but it offers a clear insight into the value of experiences which allow students to step out of their immediate academic context, apply their skills in place-based contexts, and practise the core skills of ‘collaboration’, ‘communication’, ‘creative thinking’,  ‘organising, planning and prioritising work’ and ‘problem-solving and decision making’ as outlined in the Essential Skills for 2035 report.

We need to build meaning into our practices

Recommendation 6 of the report says ‘artistic citizens should organise their practices around a desire to live well, to live equitably, and to live within planetary limits.’ As a social action charity, part of the reason we were founded 15 years ago was that students had a direct interest and desire to get involved in community action. Our current generation of students is highly engaged: they want to work in meaningful careers, be more sustainable, and build a fairer society.

But it is up to universities to reflect on the systems and structures they uphold and decide what capacity they have to change, because students will demand this. Many higher education institutions are looking to the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to build better practices in their departments, faculties and even curriculums. Whole institutional approaches are being taken to sustainable strategies and wellbeing. But often the risk we see is that students are not an active part of this work, from designing the solutions to implementing them. Students need clear targeted support to do this work effectively too. We have to build interventions which are well structured, support students’ development and train them appropriately to participate in this work. Universities should be critical about what they’re building, why, and for whom when creating brand new strategies to do meaningful work, as the work will have very little meaning and value if the majority of students cannot participate in it. 

What’s next for Leeds Conservatoire

In entering a new academic year and considering HEPI’s April report on ‘Size is Everything: What small, specialist and practice-based providers tell us about the higher education sector’, this work feels particularly pertinent right now. Professor Simon Ofield-Kerr, Vice-Chancellor of Norwich University of the Arts, declared in the Foreword of the report: ‘We need to prepare our students and ourselves for the challenges and opportunities we are facing and become adaptable enough to meet those we cannot yet imagine. The vibrancy of our engagement with industry should make this possible, including the creative industries and sector, but also the wide-ranging businesses, organisations, public sector bodies and NGOs that benefit from our research and knowledge exchange, creativity and from employing our graduates.’

Seeing students as artistic citizens offers exciting new opportunities for their future careers as graduates, and a way for institutions to reach more diverse communities, explore different sectors and support students to use their expertise in a way which makes a genuine difference in their local area. But the development of this research and strategy in the first place would not have been possible without one-off funding to kickstart these activities locally.

For Leeds Conservatoire, the next step of this approach is exploring and developing this commitment to artistic citizenship within the curriculum, providing opportunities for students to participate in these activities both within their teaching and learning experience, and as extracurricular opportunities. Embedding this work will take time, but the support from this one-off funding to expand Leeds Conservatoire’s knowledge exchange strategy has been hugely beneficial in considering the future landscape of this work, providing a foundation to pursue more research-based activities in this space as well as making partnerships like with Student Hubs possible.

The work of reimagining what artistic citizenship looks like has only just begun, but at Student Hubs we are excited to see where Leeds Conservatoire’s journey takes them, and how other providers can support their students through knowledge exchange activities, transforming engagement across the country.

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