Universities’ role in turbulent times

Community contribution matters as much as teaching and research, says Karen Stanton

August 28, 2017
Woman in crowd
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The challenges facing the HE sector are numerous right now. From the post-Brexit balance between internationalism and localism, to the way that universities respond to increasing regulation, to how institutions define their individual identities in a complex market, and of course the spectre of tuition fee changes. Each institution is drawing on its unique geography, demography, history and values to shape its response, working together where they can, but aware that there is no “one size fits all” solution.

At the same time, universities sense change in the air around perceptions of their role. The value they add, while not fundamentally in question, is a source of debate. One thing feels clear; all universities recognise the risk of being seen as the “castle on the hill” – expensive, too often disconnected from communities and still inaccessible to many. Universities have worked hard to shift culture and practice where it historically reinforced this perception, but to varying degrees there is still much more that can and should be done.

How universities take this challenge forward together feels increasingly important. Over the past year, for obvious reasons, the emphasis has been on demonstrating an overview of the big collective contributions of UK universities. Look at any of the infographics containing huge numbers showing universities’ economic impact and the global significance of their research. Where less has been done is to build a shared story from the bottom up and talk about the human connections and personal journeys that are just as important when describing the sector’s social value.

Universities are measured on their research and teaching quality, but not so explicitly on their civic responsibility and community contribution. Yet this civic impact is often the biggest determinant of how a university is publicly perceived, certainly in its local area. The external assessment of this contribution comes from the community itself and with this in mind, the sector should be proactive in challenging itself on these factors with the same rigour and determination applied to the TEF and REF.

At York St John University this “community contribution” has always been a source of pride, but we recognise that we must adapt this contribution to meet changing needs and take on a greater responsibility for the university facilitating, co-creating and enabling across our community.

Being a “facilitator” means the university taking a proactive role in creating the conditions for healthy, respectful debate across different groups within the city and beyond. At a time when community cohesion and listening to marginalised voices has never been more important, this role feels vital. For York St John, being a facilitator has translated into a recent lecture series celebrating inclusion and mutual understanding and direct work between students and the city’s refugees. We know that this “facilitation” can't just be on “our terms” so we're looking at getting out and about to be more actively involved with parts of community that wouldn't always feel comfortable visiting the university.

As a co-creator, York St John sees a role in response to both social need and student aspiration. The so-called Generation Z, the new cohort entering our institutions, are characterised as “digital natives” – constantly connected, entrepreneurial and socially conscious. Their expectation is not simply top-down teaching, but the chance to learn in ways that mean they can also make a difference far beyond the confines of the campus. By way of an example, York St John’s Prison Partnership involves our drama students, working with a national theatre company and a local prison, developing activities to help female prisoners prepare for release through the power of artistic performance. 

Similarly, as an enabler and an anchor institution in the city, the university is looking at how it can use its position to bring the region to more positive fruition. We see a role, working in partnership, to identify those challenges and priorities where our particular, skills, expertise and assets can add real value. Our Converge initiative exemplifies this. Responding to the need for more mental health provision and working with the relevant NHS Trust, Converge offers creative and practical courses, free at the point of access, to local mental health service users.

Converge courses are overseen by York St John academics, but designed and led by students. The feedback is excellent and has resulted in many exhibitions and performances hosted jointly by our students and the service users who have built an affiliation and positive regard for the university among a group that might otherwise consider us inaccessible, with many participants staying connected as mentors. This approach – recovery through education – is also increasingly a fulcrum for our research, linked to our wider focus on mental health and well-being. More than 1,000 people have benefited from a Converge course so far and we’re now helping to roll it out with universities in Leeds and Newcastle.

Initiatives such as these bring multiple benefits. They cultivate empathy and emotional intelligence in students, so vital in today’s workplace. Recent perceptions research tells us that they also build social capital in the local area, and feedback from our growing student cohort highlights this connection with the community as a key part of our widening appeal.

Whether seen through the lens of winning hearts and minds, widening participation, providing a more holistic student experience, or simply doing what’s right, a university’s community contribution matters. In turbulent times it should sit alongside teaching and research as a major area of focus.

Professor Karen Stanton is vice-chancellor of York St John University.

This article was commissioned by THE in partnership with PA Consulting Group as part of a series on Living with uncertainty: how universities can thrive in a volatile world. PA Consulting provides business advice to UK universities.

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