Universities should respond to election results with radical civic engagement

Another five years of austerity means universities must work harder to combat its impact on their communities, says David Etherington 

December 17, 2019
Smoke billows from factory chimneys
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There is no doubt that last week’s general election was the most socially divisive election in post-war Britain. And while Brexit played a central role, so did austerity. More than simply public spending cuts, austerity comprises a package of measures that includes privatisation, a regressive tax policy and a reduction in wages and labour rights to make the workforce more “flexible.” As a result, large sections of the working class have become disengaged and disenfranchised, which throws up challenges to national and local institutions – including universities.

It’s unlikely that austerity will ease during the next five years of a Conservative government. This means that universities will need to adopt radical approaches to civic engagement if they are to remain relevant to their communities.

I’m reminded of what Bob Kerslake, chair of the University Public Partnership (UPP) civic commission wrote in the “Truly Civic: Strengthening the connection between Universities and their communities” final report: “While universities are vital to their places, they also need the active support of their communities in these turbulent and challenging times.”

 Universities as ‘good employers’?

One of the recommendations from the UPP report is that universities should act as “model employers”. Universities are major employers in cities and localities, but it is clear that they are absorbing austerity and displacing it upon their own staff, most of whom are recruited from local areas.

The current industrial action by the University and College Union raises some important issues around this shifting of austerity. According to the UCU, since 2009 pay has been effectively cut by nearly 20 per cent in real terms, while staff are being asked to work harder and longer than ever before.

Not only has pay inequality increased within universities (including the gender pay gap) casual contracts remain entrenched. Employers use insecure contracts to offload that risk on to staff. Spending on outsourced workers – often employed on zero-hour contracts by separate companies to work on campuses – increased by almost 70 per cent between 2010 and 2017.  If universities are to lead by example, they need to address the concerns and demands of their own trade unions.

Potential for innovation

That said, there are many good examples of good practice where universities are engaging with localities.

An example is De Montfort University’s Centre for Urban Research on Austerity which is tasked with making sense of austerity and how it impacts on cities. CURA is part of the Leicester Urban Observatory involving collaborations between academics and practitioners that aims to establish and develop a combined centre of excellence in urban studies and planning for Leicester.   

Trade unions represent more than 4 million workers in the UK and are key to economic and social well-being. To this end, I was involved in collaborative research (with Staffordshire, Middlesex and Sheffield Hallam universities) to provide evidence for Sheffield Trades Union Council on low pay and insecure work. A central focus of the research was to engage with marginalised groups and communities in Sheffield that had been impacted by low pay and precarious work. This contributed to the TUC recruiting a worker to undertake outreach work.

Staffordshire University, where I work, is based in Stoke-on-Trent, which is an extremely deprived and deindustrialised area with strong support for Brexit. The university has an access and participation plan that centres on flexible and individualised approaches to support learning: a third of students are drawn from the local area, 50 per cent of our students are classified as “mature” on entry, and 33 per cent are studying part-time.  

The university is also involved with “Get Talking Hardship” –  a community research project commissioned in 2019 by the Hardship Commission in Stoke and funded by the National Lottery Community Fund. The lead researchers recruited a team of 43 community researchers who were trained and supported to conduct research with more than 250 participants across Stoke between February and June 2019. In this way the university has become an intellectual hub for its communities.

Future prospects

The UPP report offers a broad and useful framework for what universities should be doing in terms of civic engagement. However, as we face another five years of Conservative government and austerity, we need to adopt radical approaches, including genuine capacity building, that confront and challenge this austerity.

One way for universities to get serious about civic engagement is to review the research excellence framework. This incentive system rewards publishing in peer review journals over engaging with the policy community.

Dave Etherington is professor of local and regional economic development at Staffordshire University.

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