In the thick of it: extending external engagement

Pro bono advice on campus is an engagement with student training at its core, says Zahir Irani

August 13, 2015
Opinion illustration (13 August 2015)

Providing educational “opportunities” and conducting research is all very well, but many different people – and not just businesses – would value universities more highly if they had direct access to the knowledge and specific expertise within them.

Some already do, through free advice in areas such as law and enterprise. But such initiatives have tended to be one-way, and rooted in the interests of course delivery and the needs of students for work experience. We could do so much more.

Inevitably, university activities have been linked to where the funding is: the large-scale partners in business and government. The 2013 Witty review of universities and growth was an example of this mindset, focusing solely on the need for universities to pick out a small number of corporate winners and turn them into big, global players.

However, 96 per cent of UK businesses have nine employees or fewer, and self-employment is growing. This is where the growth potential lies and where there can be real economic impact, but fostering it will require universities to become more approachable, developing individual relationships with the general public – particularly when it comes to city campuses.

There are a huge variety of ways that an injection of new ideas or perspectives could make a real difference to people’s lives at the microlevel. Why not, for instance, offer help to local businesses and communities with marketing or branding, or with staging a community event, making a film or promoting financial awareness or even well-being? The Small Business Charter, developed in response to Lord Young’s report to government on small businesses, will help incentivise this – at least among the business schools the report recommended to take on a greater role within the local economy by offering management advice to small firms.

Higher education also needs to up its game in terms of how it develops graduate employability. Skills training has become the new norm, but what difference to student capabilities – or to employer attitudes – has it really made? We need to move beyond the basics and bring in new ideas if our students are to compete globally. Exposing them to challenging real-life problems and personalities and giving them responsibility to act as a “trusted adviser” would be a huge step forward in terms of boosting their problem-solving abilities, resilience and confidence.

Such schemes could be credit-bearing where appropriate, but taking part should be seen more in terms of personal and professional development. For academics, more external engagement would add an extra dimension to standard teaching materials, and potentially highlight new avenues and insights for research. Free clinics, in addition to demonstrating impact, would offer a chance to build stronger links with professional organisations and incorporate their input into relevant programmes. It would be a real move forward from the industrial advisory boards within universities that traditionally ensure some degree of relevance between the curriculum and the needs of business.

At Brunel University London, we’re planning to pilot some of these ideas from next month. Initially we’re sticking to safe territory: a mixture of professional and academic staff and students will provide legal advice to students through the university’s students’ advice centre, before – after suitable tweaks – the service is opened up to the public. The students will be trained in areas such as interviewing, establishing trust, ethics, confidentiality and dealing empathically with clients and sensitive topics.

But we will not stop there. The legal service will provide a solid basis for establishing similar initiatives involving staff and students from across the arts, humanities and social sciences, as well as the more obvious vocational areas such as business.

The university of the future will not be a cloistered outpost working on behalf of the few. It will be in the thick of it, solving problems for its city and community and turning out students equipped to continue doing so throughout their working lives.

Zahir Irani is professor and dean of the College of Business, Arts and Social Sciences at Brunel University London.

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