Multilayered interventions to foster community relationships

Key components of positive community engagement include institutional-, faculty- and course-level links, writes Tom Williamson. Here, he offers a road map for embedding universities in their local area and regional economy

Tom Williamson's avatar
Anglia Ruskin University
6 Dec 2023
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Cathedral Square and Market Hall, Peterborough

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Universities engaging local communities beyond the campus walls is crucial for fostering positive relationships, mutual understanding and long-term economic development for all parties. Conventional approaches – such as liaison roles, town-and-gown models and advisory boards – are often just the tip of the iceberg; myriad activities of varying scale, duration and impact take place across the organisation.

ARU Peterborough is a new kind of university, designed from the ground up to match the needs of local students, employers and the regional economy. Its creation realises a 40-year ambition to create a university in and for Peterborough, a higher education “cold spot”. Central to delivering on this ambitious project has been a deep and strategic collaboration with a wide range of community groups at all layers of the institution to ensure that wider engagement is both top down and bottom up.

Institutional strategic links

As would be expected, often the most significant engagements are found within formal partnerships. For ARU Peterborough, these are with its founding partners, the Cambridgeshire & Peterborough Combined Authority and Peterborough City Council. This structured engagement includes bilateral representational and participation on boards, advisory groups and operational committees as appropriate.

Across universities, formal or informal strategic links exist to ensure purposeful strategic dialogue with key local government partners. However, community partnerships must also extend beyond established systems and local anchor employers. Establishing links with third-sector organisations, such as IntoUniversity, provides the opportunity to deliver meaningful long-term impact for communities.

IntoUniversity provides local learning centres, where young people develop new skills and which raise the aspirations of future generations across the community. This is achieved through sustained interventions with robust evaluation in partnership with universities.

Faculty-level engagement

Our links with industry are essential as a sector; as a provider of labour, we must ensure our curriculum, skills and values prepare students for the transition into work. Through sector interest groups (SIGs), more than 170 businesses have been engaged across Peterborough to aid in the co-creation of curriculum, identify present and future skills gaps, and maintain a meaningful dialogue between industry and the university.

Beyond the SIGs, the opportunity exists to build upon these in the creation of business advisory groups, meeting frequently throughout the year to ensure continued dialogue beyond the initial curriculum-development work streams. A purposeful and structured approach also provides a platform for impactful engagement with business support teams and schemes across the institution to support economic growth and add value to businesses that invest their time in supporting the institution (for example, through innovation vouchers, Help to Grow programmes and knowledge transfer partnerships).

Course-level activity

Industry partners are crucial to enhancing teaching and learning and the wider student experience. This can happen through guest lectures, field trips and student consultancy projects within modules and in place of traditional dissertations. Supporting employability through long and short placements and graduate-level employment is the obvious way to retain higher skills in the region.

For engagement in the other direction, expertise is shared into the community through intellectual property clinics, employment fairs, public lecture series, CPD programmes, skills-development workshops, access to flexible part-time workforces, placements and collaborative research or consultancy projects. With a focus on upskilling the workforce, programmes of CPD provision across all discipline areas are essential in supporting industry with talent development and retention; so too is the expansive portfolio of degree apprenticeships we offer as a sector.

Ad-hoc engagement

Collaborating with Citizens UK and similar community groups provides a platform for staff and students to make change on the issues that matter to them. We must recognise our role as anchor institutions, and as well-placed estates at the heart of communities, to ensure opportunities for such activities to take place. Similarly, we must proactively engage with religious groups, membership organisations, representative groups, charities and civic leaders to better understand the challenges and opportunities in our locality and, crucially, foster deeper mutual understanding and opportunities for collaboration.

Similarly, the work undertaken to host local schools, community groups and charities covering a full range of demographics is crucial for raising aspirations and engaging with groups that might otherwise not participate in other events on offer.

Finally, encouraging team members to take on roles within our communities, including as governors, trustees and non-executive directors within the wider city education landscape and trusts, can support a more joined-up and collegiate education ecosystem locally, supporting the development of education for all.

Key components of fostering positive community relations include ensuring a mutual understanding of each party’s needs, structured and purposeful communications, and ensuring that the values and mission of the institution are understood at all levels of the institution to nurture and encourage top-down and bottom-up interventions. Oversight and coordination of such activities can be complex in larger organisations. The closer we get to being able to record, monitor and evaluate all interactions and interventions, the easier it will be to demonstrate value and impact and to support the case to do more.

Tom Williamson is assistant principal of ARU Peterborough, responsible for the Faculty of Business, Innovation and Entrepreneurship and the Faculty of Creative and Digital Arts and Sciences at Anglia Ruskin University.

Anglia Ruskin University has been shortlisted in the Outstanding Contribution to the Local Community category in the Times Higher Education Awards 2023 #THEAwards. See the full list of shortlisted candidates. Winners will be announced at a ceremony on 7 December in Liverpool.

Academics and university leaders from across the UK and Ireland will come together on 6-7 December at THE Campus Live UK&IE to talk about institutional strategies, teaching and learning, the student experience and more. Join us for this two-day event in Liverpool.

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