A close to home truth

August 3, 2001

The way forward for universities is to better engage with the local population, argues Ian Gibson.

Another glossy document comes through the post. The Regional Mission , produced by Universities UK and the Higher Education Funding Council for England, features a strong case for why universities should be deeply embedded in their local region and describes the social and economic benefits this can bring.

Importantly, it recognises political changes whereby regions, with the aid of the strong knowledge base emanating from higher education, are moving to the forefront on issues such as poverty alleviation, industrial development, health and transport. It also recognises that academics participate in many local forums, including schools and industry.

So far so good. But it is on how to take the agenda forward that the document fails. There is no dynamism in the plan for increasing public involvement, and the points made are very general and fail to address the main challenges. Moreover, I doubt if the document will be read by more than a fraction of university staff. Unless it sparks widespread discussion, I fear it will just gather dust.

Engaging the public and developing their perception of universities and colleges is crucial when tuition fees and perceived elitism are at the forefront of public consciousness. Universities are still thought of as "for them, not us" despite efforts to change this.

If they are to receive greater government support, it will be through public pressure. This will mean dissolving the Russell Group. It will mean recognising that academics cannot carry out research, teaching and administration with equal vigour and that the researcher, for example, is not more important than other activities. It will mean giving the public greater access to more democratic structures in universities; and ensuring that the different layers of staff have equal status in the academic decision-making process.

The document talks of partnership not competition. So why is there still strong resistance to increasing cooperation among local colleges (or former polytechnics) and universities? Is it really because "they don't do research"?

My constituents are not passionate about higher education. They are concerned with the Child Support Agency, benefits, hospital waits, poor school buildings and disillusioned teachers, and I am sure academics recognise this. How do we promote the values that we know education provides and the exciting interactions among students that occur in a university setting?

Universities have much to do if they are to be seen by the public as open-access bodies where people can really play a part. If universities are serious about engaging the public and want the public to engage with them, they should widen access through the creation of internal structures, accorded high status and aimed specifically at engaging the public.

The government is making resources available and some universities are making efforts, for example through summer schools, but they are going to have to shift their emphasis from spin-off companies and industrial interaction to engagement with the public (real engagement, not one-off events) in a range of settings, from schools and community centres to trade union branches.

One way to make this a real priority would be for every university to be assessed on what it does in the locality with funds being awarded accordingly.

Every academic and vice-chancellor needs to address the issue of public participation in higher education. This issue is more important than fees, quality assessment and the research assessment exercise. While these may be problematic, they are not toxic to higher education and its values.

Much is written about the public and the need to engage it or to ensure that it understands the implications of science, for example. The UUK document outlines the need for change. Are universities ready to take up the challenge or will they continue to argue that funding comes before good ideas? In truth, money often follows innovation.

Ian Gibson is Labour MP for Norwich North. He was dean of biological science at the University of East Anglia, 1991-97.

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