Becoming a communiversity: Thinking about what and who are universities for

Becoming a communiversity: Thinking about what and who are universities for

Guest post:

This post was written by Rowland Atkinson, Lee Crookes, Andy Inch, Marion Oveson and Tom Shore.

WP_20141203_001Sheffield is a civic university and, like many others, it espouses an outward-facing and connected sensibility. It is also notable for being an institution that was funded by public subscription and in this sense the university retains a debt of gratitude and a duty of care to the city. But surely we should argue this for all universities. Yet at least one of the anxieties about switching funding from direct grants to an increasingly debt-financed model* is the sense that universities will be made more exclusive. From the outside universities can seem intimidating and elites spaces far from being a common resource for the development of relevant ideas, plans and designs – spaces in which socially-relevant and useful ideas can and should be forged, alongside those outside them who might benefit. Those in the social sciences who so often feel a sense of duty and interest in the common good are however only one segment of its population and many in the social sciences are not only more or less committed to progressive social change, they are also more or less burdened by the pressures of teaching and writing which sometimes disconnect academics from the possibility of achieving real results from their endeavours – we may become too busy to care, hunkering down in survival mode, or pursuing lofty goals of excellence without reference to the immediate conditions around the university itself.

Surely this needs to change and the goals of our auditing processes be made to line-up more closely with the importance of viewing universities as organisations that form a bedrock of a stable resource for excluded communities and a source of knowledge and ideas around how to deal with local social problems. To be blunt, many of the imperatives facing academics tend to militate against them being more accessible, open and self-evidently interested in their local communities, excluded groups and civic society more broadly. How might we better ensure that the university as an institution retains and builds resources for the cities and communities it is co-dependent on? Can community groups and individuals be made to feel that they will get a hearing from academics who, it may be feared, may look down their nose at someone who has interrupted their stream of lofty thought! Even if those within the academy would welcome such contact we need to do more to appear receptive to such contact and find mechanisms by which those with questions may more easily find those who may have ideas or answers.

Social divisions are not hard to find – do universities feel they are there to help with social problems?

In Sheffield there is certainly a deep sense of commitment from many colleagues to the city we are in. As a post-industrial heartland the place remains unequal and, in many spaces, poverty stricken. Colleagues are involved in city-efforts around a Fairness Commission, profiling social problems through a series of State of Sheffield reports and spending time in organisations outside the university. These efforts have, to be sure, been with the help and interest of organisations outside the university and it has generated a sense of commitment and the idea that the university is a resource of and for the city. As many academics will recognise, the idea of somehow being brilliant in a particular field is often seen as implying work done elsewhere – excellent work is somehow something international. But are there other ways in which the privilege of universities and the privileged who benefit from its setting can be locked more closely into step with the needs and ambitions of the wider population? Our event, Communiversity, was an attempt to think through these thorny issues.

Changing community formations and structures present challenges – who is the university for, and why?

The Communiversity event began with little in the way of an agenda, rather it was a day in which folk from inside and out of the university were invited to discuss the challenge of what we think a university should be for its local communities. Should we engage outwards or invite inwards? What is effective and what are the barriers? More than sixty of us listened to presentations (from, we confess, mostly academics!) thinking through these issues. At the heart of this was the question of what a university is and who it is for. Not least, will fee-paying students act as a further force that stakes out university resources as being only for those paying for them? The day had a great atmosphere (a link to a series of podcasts and a write-up of the day’s proceedings will be linked to soon) and a real sense of interest in the ideas from many who find the university a rather, perhaps benignly, inaccessible place. The burning issues to come from the meeting focused on:

  1. How can the university and its staff be made more legible to those looking for support or knowledge? This proved to be a major point and one to which we will move forward with a working party to try and resolve. There are models out there but one question is the extent to which all scholars could or should be made to sign-up to being available to excluded communities outside the university (and perhaps how to incorporate this in workloads and in wider mission statements that tend to focus on the utility of knowledge for business). In other words – could there be a single point of contact for outside organisations to contact/connect with regarding their area of interest/question?
  2. It’s going to get much worse, as statutory services are being cut voluntary organisations are dealing with people with major problems – can universities help under these conditions and given their relatively more stable funding flows? Could some of this funding go towards supporting community-university partnership projects?
  3. Complexity – how do we deal with the fact that many within universities find their own institutions large and difficult to ‘know’ and may struggle to understand the range of institutions outside?
  4. How do we make large institutions that affect the economy and built environment of the city in such profound ways to be more transparent to their host cities? This proved to be a key point to which many felt passionately that there should be more engagement, despite the difficulty of consulting effectively. Even the buildings of a university and its future planning have a large and direct impact on the fabric and daily life of the city around it.
  5. Just ask the question – Many academics would really enjoy being approached directly. No doubt this remains difficult – how do you find out whether some is willing to engage and where expertise lies?
  6. Universities could/should be running spaces in which conversations about the community/public interest can be aired – a critical point and one which needs more widespread debate. Universities still receive significant public monies and their mandate as spaces of public conversations needs reinstating under conditions in which a narrowly utilitarian model of being useful to the economy prevails. How do we do this without taking ‘business’ away from community organisations who offer venues to the public and do this fairly? Similarly, how might we get the most dis-engaged members of society to; know about this, be interested in taking part, and feel able to cross multiple barriers in order to participate?
  7. Given current pressures in universities around outputs, income generation and the relatively short-term, project-based nature of research funding, can academics make space for the development of much longer term, mutually beneficial relationships with local communities that are built on principles of trust and reciprocity which don’t subside once funding is over and expectations have been raised.
  8. In opening the university up, how do we address the risk that greater engagement will privilege those who already possess much social and cultural capital; those who already know how to access university resources?
  9. How do we start a broader conversation in the city about who/what the university is for?

These points form the beginning of our efforts to continue to think about the role of the social sciences and universities to stitch together where possible mutual needs and ambitions to see these goals as paving the way for deeper social justice, sustainable dialogue and the opening-up of resources where it makes sense to do so. We hope to report back on these issues as we move forward with community partners from this first event.

DSC00940*students borrowing to pay their fees, which they pay back if they reach a certain income

This post first appeared on Rowland Atkinson’s blog