With the arrival of the Knowledge Exchange Framework and Industrial Strategy, connecting with local communities is quite rightly shifting back into the spotlight. Paul Gentle examines this revival, and how some senior leaders are engaging with their communities in creative and surprising ways.
The idea of universities making a difference in their own backyard is one of the great comeback stories of the last two years.
In some cases, repositioning was more than overdue: institutions’ shortcomings in engaging with local communities about the benefits of remaining in the European Union, coupled with their collective silence on the case for public value in the face of attacks from the media, left higher education looking isolated and out of touch.
But when you get talking to academic leaders, it doesn’t take long to find striking examples of universities’ values at work in engaging with people in their home cities.
Sometimes there’s clear economic impact. Spin-out companies which apply research discoveries can put their location on the map and create employment. Partnerships between universities and successful enterprises add value to companies, while providing placement or internship opportunities for students. In Scotland, local narratives are writ large in the City Region Deal partnerships now being forged in cities like Aberdeen, Edinburgh, and Glasgow.
In other cases, universities are making a powerful difference on a cultural level. Visit Goldsmiths University of London, and you find a university inhabiting several blocks of diverse inner-city neighbourhood in the Borough of Lewisham. Tucked between local shops, cafes and hairdressers, there’s also the Curzon Cinema and George Wood Theatre, both run by Goldsmiths and well-used by residents.
There’s no shortage of vision, nor of ambition, when it comes to how some senior leaders embrace these new creative local stories.
Mark d’Inverno, Pro-Warden (International) at Goldsmiths, is author of a compelling narrative in the institution’s developing International Strategy. He writes ‘we are absolutely committed to promoting London as a diverse, inclusive and creative community’.
The Head of Department of Management at Sheffield Hallam University, Ann Norton, speaks of ‘transforming business and communities’ through the work of her colleagues and students which build authentic local partnerships.
‘Through Venture Matrix, a work-related learning scheme and free business consultancy service, we contribute to the regeneration of the region’, says Norton. ‘A great example of this is how our MBA students have made a difference to the work of South Yorkshire Afro-Caribbean Centre (SYAC), a social enterprise for Minority Ethnic communities in Sheffield.’
The gauntlet is down for universities to draw on their creativity and innovation to forge new partnerships.
If public policy can be said to drive change, then the Government’s Industrial Strategy provides a good current example. The gauntlet is down for universities to draw on their creativity and innovation to forge new partnerships. The forthcoming Knowledge Excellence Framework will bring further recognition of an aspect of universities’ work which has in the past seemed to be a third-string activity alongside education and research.
Where more work will always be needed is in crafting the narratives which bring alive the passion, commitment to social justice and change, and sheer expertise universities can bring to igniting their localities.
Once crafted, these stories need curating as the lifeblood of healing, transformative relationships. They need love breathing into them by message carriers working at every level of our higher education sector. The time is now.
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