Regaining a sense of place

In a perilous time of populist attacks and constant value critiques, universities should focus on rebuilding trust in their local communities

June 20, 2019
Source: Alamy

A decade ago, I visited the University of Nottingham in Malaysia, a branch campus surrounded by oil palm plantations with a replica clock tower resembling an original back at base in the UK.

Nottingham was a trailblazer of the overseas campus, setting up both in Malaysia and China.

But even for one of the most established operators in bricks-and-mortar transnational education, there was a disembodied feel about the place.

It wasn’t the humidity that gave it a different atmosphere from Nottingham’s home campus. Notwithstanding its connection to the mother ship, this was a very new institution in a developing area of the Klang Valley some distance from Kuala Lumpur.

It requires a sustained presence to become part of the fabric of a place – as a university must – and at the time it felt, to borrow from Gertrude Stein, that there was no there there.

This may well have changed in the intervening years. As is discussed in our cover story, a model that boomed in the noughties has matured in some cases, failed in others, and Nottingham’s ventures are in the former bracket. Part of the rationale for transnational education is to help transform local educational opportunities, and often to conduct research relevant to the region in question.

But the memory of that visit returned this week when considering the idea of the civic university: the notion that an institution’s success depends on the part it plays in the community in which it sits, and that the fortunes and identity of city and university are closely linked.

Last week, the president of the University of Chicago, Robert Zimmer, was in London to deliver the UPP Foundation’s annual lecture, setting out his institution’s strategy to play a strong civic role in an area of the city with considerable deprivation and inequality, and a particular problem with crime.

Its ability to do this is considerable given its location in the south side of Chicago, and position as a major landowner and economic player – not to mention its $8 billion (£6.3 billion) endowment.

Some of its initiatives are directly translatable to others: the support through procurement policies of local minority-owned businesses, for example, or enterprises run by local women.

Others are more specific to its place: the impressive Crime Lab, for example, that works with civic and community leaders to analyse, design and test new approaches to reduce offending.

An example of a scalable piece of work here is a study that tested the theory that violence could be reduced by addressing the spontaneous reactions of young men in particular, using cognitive behavioural techniques to help those most at risk to slow down their response in stressful situations.

It is striking for a president of a university ranked in the world top 10 to be so openly committed not just to the usual accolades in research or the pursuit of global grand challenges, but to thinking also – perhaps first – about those who live around his institution.

This is not how academia’s incentive structures work.

It is true that Chicago has certain advantages: an endowment fund that seems almost bottomless in comparison to the resources available to most universities is an obvious one.

Money can’t always be the answer or the excuse when decisions are made about what a university should be doing and prioritising, but there’s no doubt it is easier to take a different path (and to hell with the trade-offs) from a position of financial independence and strength.

This will not translate for many. But for those in more straitened circumstances, an appeal to self-interest may encourage a wholehearted embrace of their civic role and responsibilities.

It is this: universities in many countries face a very real danger associated with a loss of broad public support at a time of populist attacks, questions over value for money, relevance and impact.

At its most basic this can be cast in terms of the potential impact on taxpayer funding, but it goes further than that, and for some institutions (and perhaps disciplines) the effect could be terminal.

In this light, restoring that link with local communities and winning back their support and confidence looks less like a nice idea than something that is necessary for survival.

Whether this also applies to branch campuses is another question, but it may be that even in this most explicit expression of internationalisation greater localisation is the route to a sustainable future.

john.gill@timeshighereducation.com

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Print headline: A sense of place

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