Universities must find new ways to connect with our communities 

Do away with the expectation that young people will seek out universities to inform their world view and meet them on common ground, argues Ed Byrne

September 22, 2018

There has never been a more important time for universities to connect with the communities around them, and to be guided by the needs of the people they seek to serve. 

We live in a world that needs – more than ever – a contemporary, forward-looking and collaborative approach to tackling the biggest social challenges of our time, recognising the value of the lived experience alongside learning and research. Universities exist to do good. We are uniquely placed to work with our local communities to offer creative solutions and tangible support in responding to the most pressing issues that they face.

But to be a trusted neighbour to those living and working in our communities, to stay relevant and to fulfil our commitment to the greater good, universities must go above and beyond what has hitherto been required.

We must find a way to connect more deeply with those around us. If we fail in this endeavour we risk isolating the students we seek to inspire, we risk our research having little impact on the needs of society, and we risk becoming disconnected from the communities whose futures are inextricably linked to ours.

This week King’s College London officially opens Science Gallery London. The first of its kind in the UK, the gallery adopts a model pioneered by Trinity College Dublin that seeks to reimagine the ways in which universities connect with and work alongside their local communities. 

Challenging the traditional view of a gallery, Science Gallery London doesn’t have a permanent collection. Its vision and purpose is not determined primarily by any governing board. Instead, Science Gallery London will present a frequently evolving programme of participatory science-based exhibitions and events that will be developed with and by the young adult community who live, work and study within the Southwark and Lambeth boroughs. 

Collaborations between academics, artists, designers and cultural organisations will explore the issues faced by our local communities, with young voices at the centre of the conversations on how universities might address them. Our inaugural season Hooked: When Want Becomes Need explores addiction and recovery.

Universities must prioritise building meaningful avenues for young people who would not normally engage with the institutions on their doorsteps. From the age of 15 onwards, young people are looking to their peers and external influencers – particularly those influencers who dominate their social media feeds – to shape their view of the world beyond the guidance of their parents, teachers and guardians. 

We cannot expect the young adults in our communities to flock to our doors and digital platforms seeking information and inspiration. We know that for a significant number in our local community, there are multiple social and financial challenges that prevent young adults choosing to undertake higher education, as well as perceptions that the work of universities is not accessible or relevant to them.

Reversing the expectation that young people should and will seek us out to inform their world view, or guide them in decisions about their education and future career path, universities must take the lead and meet these young people on common ground. We must identify and create spaces where young people want to spend their time, where they feel empowered and enabled to connect with our work, and where the issues that matter most to them are explored in dynamic and meaningful ways.  

This is our vision for Science Gallery London, and indeed our broader commitment to widening participation and civic purpose. We firmly believe that by providing an inclusive space for the young people of our local communities to experiment, interrogate and play with our cutting-edge research in creative ways, we are providing them access to a world they may previously have thought inaccessible, unattainable or irrelevant to their daily lives. To meet the challenges our future holds, we need passionate and imaginative young people to fall in love with science – and indeed technology, engineering, the arts and medicine – and contribute their voice to the essential debates of our time. 

We hope that by providing a free space where local audiences can connect with and interrogate our academic research, we will ensure that we remain relevant to and are, crucially, part of the communities that we call home. 

At King’s, we also believe that there need not be a tension between the international and the local. By joining the international Science Gallery Network, we can draw on global connections to benefit our local communities, and use our local insights to generate new research with transnational impact. 

Ed Byrne is principal and president of King’s College London

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