If any nation can lead on university civic engagement it’s Wales

There’s a great opportunity for Wales to show the world how an education centred on public service and community can be delivered, says Kirsty Williams 

March 10, 2020

I led an education delegation from Wales to the southern United States last September. We oversaw new university partnerships; re-kindled the special relationship between Wales and 16th St Baptist Church in Alabama; and agreed new civic mission relationships.

In another southern state, on a marble wall at the main entrance of the University of Houston, Texas, there is an excerpt from an 1839 education committee report to the Congress of the Independent Republic of Texas. The committee chair was representative Ezekiel Cullen, who went on to introduce the legislation that established land endowments for public education, from schools through to universities.

The preamble to the report sets out clear, coherent and confident ambitions for the purpose of education: “Nothing is so essential in a free government as the general diffusion of knowledge and intelligence of every kind. Education confers private happiness; it gives political strength and importance; it exalts the mind, refines the passion, polishes the manners; and promotes virtue. It is the foundation of liberty and constitutes national strength and glory.”

In my first keynote speech as education minister for Wales in 2016, I referenced how the modern US universities that grew from those land grant institutions were now defining themselves as “stewards of place”.

That work influenced my civic mission challenge to the sector in Wales. Universities needed, and still need, to reflect on the distance between campus and community that had emerged. It is a challenge that should continue to engage hearts and minds across the nation.

In my forthcoming, and last, annual remit letter to the Higher Education Funding Council for Wales (HEFCW), I will set out my key civic mission objectives for the sector.

I want nothing less than our universities to be the most engaged, the biggest contributors and the largest resource in the efforts to find solutions to the challenges and issues facing our nation. That comes with rights and responsibilities.

It means that the idea of place, being of – and for – communities, should be the defining feature of higher education. And I want the world to sit up and take note.

First, civic engagement must not be a university “nice to have”. It needs to be part of each institution’s DNA, mainstreamed into their core activity, with funding and investment decisions taking full heed of civic missions.  

Second, I expect HEFCW and the new Commission for Tertiary Education & Research to work with institutions to ensure that civic engagement activity is developed, delivered and extended in such a way that it is recognised and visible to their host communities. That will also mean changes to governance to better involve and reflect local interests.

Third, institutions must be encouraged and incentivised to develop accessible and creative means of disseminating and sharing widely the knowledge, understanding and innovation that is produced in our institutions. This is particularly relevant for, but not limited to, new resources for our new school curriculum in Wales. The new curriculum is a huge opportunity for academics of all stripes to produce resources for Wales that have been made in Wales.

Fourth, and finally, I want to see the sector develop and implement measures of civic engagement, ensuring Wales is a world leader in this regard.

I’m not asking for a crude league table, but we must be better at measuring and monitoring this activity so that it is visible to students, citizens, the nation and the world.

The UPP Foundation’s Civic University Commission has already called for a civic index. We in Wales need to keep ahead of the pack and work up our own measurements, informed by international best practice.

Wales has led the way on the real living wage for all staff, on reforming governance and on seeking international civic mission partnerships. It must be us too who lead the way on measuring and monitoring civic engagement, in line with our traditions, and through modern techniques and analysis.

In Ezekiel Cullen’s report, some 108 years ago, his call to action for the republic was that: “Intelligence is the only true aristocracy in a government like ours. And the improved and educated mind has and will triumph over the ignorant and uneducated.”

For me, Wales now has the opportunity to build our own aristocracy, based on true public service education, combining equity and excellence, delivering for all citizens. We have a huge opportunity to lead from the front. We must grasp it.

Kirsty Williams is the Minister for Education in Wales.

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