Civic engagement: universities should prioritise public and charity sector partnerships

Industrial and commercial partnerships for economic growth are important, but universities must also look to the public and third sectors, says Claire Taylor

October 23, 2017

There is nothing new about the debate around university civic engagement, or the “civic mission” of universities. In August 2016 I shared my thoughts on the subject in THE blog about the need to deploy universities as social cohesion anchors in the wake of a Brexit vote that had left parts of the UK confused and in shock.

I wrote: “Now is the time to reinvigorate the concept of the university as anchor institution, and to extend the idea beyond economic and social regeneration to embrace community and societal cohesion.” I was making the point that, following a period in which UK universities had demonstrated impactful engagement by working with industrial and commercial partners sharing an agenda of economic advancement, it was now time to turn our attention to the thorny issue of community cohesion.

This shift in universities’ attention demands a new mindset; one that moves from a focus on industrial and commercial partnerships for economic growth and becomes equally, or even more, concerned with partnering with our public services and third sector organisations to support the growth and development of community and societal cohesion and well-being.

In Wales, the idea of the civically engaged university is high on the political agenda. In September 2016, Kirsty Williams, Cabinet secretary for education, spoke of the need for universities to recapture a sense of civic mission, quoting my THE article in the process and being unequivocal in her desire to see truly meaningful university engagement with communities across the nation. And the message has continued; a few months ago, Ms Williams again challenged Welsh universities to consider the nature of their engagement with community and society, and went further by stating that universities should pay the living wage as part of their “civic mission”.

This month, the Welsh government is holding a Civic Mission Summit that will offer universities in Wales an opportunity to highlight their civic mission work and demonstrate their engagement with the civic mission agenda. So the idea is fast gaining traction within Wales and is moving away from mere ideology towards tangible embodiment within policy and practice.

Thus, Welsh universities have a real opportunity to lead a UK-wide renaissance in relation to the civic mission of universities and their responsibilities to deliver public good. Why? Well, first, because there is no doubt that universities are doing a lot of this already, but second because we have a key piece of legislation that brings significant leverage in relation to making a case for universities to act as civically engaged leaders and change-makers.

The Wellbeing of Future Generations Act requires public bodies in Wales (such as local authorities, health boards, fire and rescue services and organisations such as the National Museum of Wales, and the Arts and Sports Councils of Wales to name but a few) to put long-term sustainability at the forefront of their thinking, and work with each other collaboratively, and with other relevant organisations and the public, to anticipate, prevent and tackle societal problems. It passed into law in April 2015 and features seven well-being goals for Wales, covering prosperity, resilience, health, equality, Welsh language and culture, global responsibility and “a Wales of cohesive communities” – and this is where universities can play a vital role in relation to civic engagement, supported by a legislative imperative.

To realise real change within our communities, universities should look to support and facilitate transformation in those services that our population has most contact with, regardless of age, socio-economic status or cultural background. And those are our public and third sector services: our hospitals, GP surgeries, schools, uniformed services, local government, social services and other (often voluntary) community support services.

My own university and others are already developing close links with the public and third sector across our region and beyond, but the key challenge is to ensure that as we develop this activity we remain true to the core purpose of all universities – to research and to teach.

We can work together with our friends in the public services and third sector as co-researchers, supporting and challenging each other to disassemble and reassemble knowledge, policy and practice and pushing the boundaries in relation to creative problem-solving for the benefit of individual citizens and society more generally. And in relation to teaching and learning, we can work together with public and third sector partners to create and deliver innovative taught programmes with real-world practical value that meet the needs of employers and employees in the public and third sectors, equipping them to engage proactively with the community and societal challenges that we all face.   

University civic engagement is fast becoming a vehicle for supporting and driving change. Together, public services, the third sector and universities have a tremendous opportunity to be part of a truly collaborative wide-ranging transformation of Welsh society that will sustain the well-being of future generations today, tomorrow and in the years to come. 

Claire Taylor is deputy vice-chancellor and professor of education at Wrexham Glyndŵr University.

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