The Pink Pavilion, a painting that shows Brighton’s Royal Pavilion in an array of hues, hangs with pride of place in the offices of the University of Brighton’s Community University Partnership Programme (Cupp).
Created by three artists with learning disabilities – Kristen Grbec, Tina Jenner and Shirley Hart – and Brighton master’s student Natalia Natuka, the painting is just one of the many stunning pieces of work created through Inclusive Arts, one of Cupp’s longest-running projects.
Originally set up to give people with learning disabilities the chance to develop their art in a university setting rather than merely as a diversionary activity, the project has since spurred research, an MA and works that have been exhibited at Tate Modern and sold to commercial buyers.
Despite the artists’ extraordinary achievements, David Wolff, director of Cupp, often wonders who is benefiting most.
“Students say, ‘My learning’s been transformed,’ because they’ve needed to explain how they work to someone with very different communication requirements,” he says.
Cupp, which five years ago won the Times Higher Education Outstanding Contribution to the Local Community award, celebrates its 10th anniversary this month.
For Wolff, Inclusive Arts is the epitome of what Cupp looks to create and is one of a handful of community projects that has become a truly embedded part of the university.
Treating community organisations as partners rather than charity cases is key to Cupp’s success, he says: the programme recognises that they have resources to offer that enrich the university as much as the other way around.
Cupp was kick-started in 2003 by funding from US organisation The Atlantic Philanthropies, which contacted Brighton after Sir David Watson, its vice-chancellor at the time, appeared on BBC Radio 4’s The Commission and spoke about universities’ community role.
Starting with £800,000 over four years, Wolff and his colleagues began by learning from the US, where community engagement is more developed in the academy, and created a model that has gone on to thrive in Brighton.
One of Cupp’s first moves was to establish a helpdesk, a gateway to the local community that allows people to approach the “complex beast” of a university with even the vaguest of ideas, Wolff says. Its success makes him laugh, he adds, because “it’s commonplace in other organisations, but in a university it is almost unprecedented”.
Cupp then connected researchers to community organisations through scoping meetings that led to projects, sometimes seed-funded through the programme. But it soon moved on to teaching and students, too.
“Quite quickly we realised it was not just research but teaching where these links were possible,” says Wolff.
The helpdesk now fields around 200 enquiries a year, with about half turning into projects. Since 2003, some 1,400 enquiries have spurred about 160 projects that the programme has taken on itself, with many more developing independently.
While some of the relationships formed through Cupp (such as that between Angie Hart, professor of child, family and community health, and local charity Amaze) have lasted almost a decade, others, such as social scientist Aidan McGarry’s chairing of the city’s Traveller Scrutiny Panel (which won a national award), are short term in nature.
One major change brought about by the programme has been the introduction across Brighton of “service learning”, an American term that means adapting the student curriculum to include community work.
Brighton’s strategic plan now states that every undergraduate course has to provide external engagement opportunities.
The university also has a free-floating community engagement module taken by up to 400 students a year, and through various routes has helped undergraduates and postgraduates find their footing in community and third-sector work, careers for which there is no clear entry path.
Cupp now gets about £230,000 a year from Brighton, alongside support for specific initiatives from the Higher Education Funding Council for England. The fact that the university sees community engagement as a core part of its mission is essential to the model’s success, Wolff says.
Although a big movement to support non-traditional learners to access university education, started in the 1970s, has all but disappeared, community engagement is becoming more important across the sector, Wolff says. Examples include the National Coordinating Centre for Public Engagement, hosted between the University of Bristol and the University of the West of England, which is growing in prominence.
As a pioneer in this area, Cupp receives an incredible amount of interest from institutions wanting to learn from it, says Wolff.
But university engagement with communities should still be more of “a day-to-day expectation” than it is, he adds, especially in straitened times when project partners are closing down and communities are losing services, facilities and resources.
“If you did replicate [Cupp] in some form in all universities, then arguably you’d be looking at a substantial untapped resource for communities and something that would enhance research and teaching, too,” he argues.
Wolff – who like his Cupp colleagues comes from a background in community work – acknowledges that this might not be the first priority for many scholars. A national survey featured in the government’s Dual Funding Structure for Research in the UK report, published in April, confirmed that academics view working with communities as the least important factor for career progression.
But perhaps thanks to its origins as a group of local trade schools, this does not seem to be the case at Brighton, he says.
“I think it’s different if you have a much more recently created university. Perhaps with a research-intensive agenda [the community focus] is not necessarily going to be there,” Wolff says.
Institutions also need to understand the community perspective and base their initiatives around local circumstances and needs, he adds: “People often want the exact recipe as to why things are successful, and I think that’s a mistake.”
While this kind of university venture often lacks support, traditional knowledge transfer and research commercialisation are booming, despite the fact that for Wolff they are similar things and at Brighton sit within the same department.
“On the business side there’s a greater focus on income generation, but what’s underneath remains the same. It’s about delivery and sharing things of value, which just happen to be for commercial benefit more explicitly than social benefit,” he explains.
Difficulties in evaluation hold back support for community work, he adds. Proving the often intangible benefits of engagement is much harder than measuring turnover and profitability, especially when asking academics to fill out yet more “impact” forms can risk their involvement altogether.
Cupp is looking at novel ways to evaluate its work in order to overcome these hurdles, such as setting up online maps showing details of all the projects in the area, enabling members to view and celebrate their achievements.
Wolff also hopes that this in turn will allow local people to see the huge variety of projects the university is involved with, thereby encouraging more of their peers to come forward with ideas to enrich the community – and the university.