Universities must become centres of advice as well as learning

28 Jul 15
If society is to continue funding higher education through taxes, universities need to open up and work directly with local communities, to become problem-solvers and drivers of economic change.

What’s needed is a new dimension to the ‘widening participation’ agenda that moves beyond students: a focus on ‘widening engagement’ with business and society at large.

HE is a huge and powerful resource in terms of facilities and knowledge, and plays a critical role both economically and socially. We need to think creatively about how universities can increase the ‘foot flow’ on campus, but not just of students and parents. How do we join up the many activities based on often excellent infrastructure – the learning opportunities, expertise, the research, enterprise spin-outs – so that the average taxpayer can see and feel the benefits of having a local university?

There is much more that universities can offer to the public that would make a difference to people’s lives. Outreach could help change the relationship and perception of the sector, from a narrow channel of specialist research and activities relevant to a minority, into a genuine resource for communities.

Free advice initiatives have been offered by universities before, albeit it in a rather piecemeal fashion and without the full institutional backing and strategic intent to make a difference to communities. And these have tended to be one-way, often used to mask the sale of consultancy, or concerned primarily with the interests of course delivery.

Universities could build on this experience and offer the chance to develop ideas around marketing or branding, help with staging community events like theatre productions, film-making or other media projects, promote greater financial awareness, or simply support health and wellbeing. There’s the opportunity to provide an injection of new ideas from academics and students alike, acting as participants and observers.

Reaching out into the community and inviting the public onto campus will create new perspectives on challenges, allowing academics and students to act as a useful sounding boards on real-world problems. The advice offered might be thought-provoking rather than prescriptive but might act as the oil to make communities work better, help deal with problems more easily, or be more active or creative. The engagement would not be intended as consultancy but rather a form of direction-setting, allowing others with broad knowledge to offer insights and motivation from a different, informed perspective where students are able to witness and contribute to problem solving.

The missed opportunities are at the micro-level. Inevitably, university activities have been linked to where the funding is, the large-scale partners in business and government where the investment is large and payoff even larger. The Witty Review into HE and economic growth was an example of this dominant attitude, focusing solely on the need to pick out a small number of winners and turning them into big, global organisations, but it has little immediate and direct impact on smaller players.

In the UK, 95.5% of firms have 10 employees or fewer. The changing world of work means more self-employed and new needs in terms of skills, and this is where universities can extend their role and engagement. More personal, individual relationships with the general public will increasingly be important in supporting change and economic growth, particularly when it comes to city campuses and their relationships with their stakeholders. The Small Business Charter championed by Lord Young and put in place by the Chartered Association of Business Schools is an important element in encouraging more HE and business interaction, but perhaps looks too narrow by not taking into consideration the value of involving other areas of expertise.

It’s a chance too for other professional bodies or societies to recognise and promote this kind of outreach.

More interaction with real-life problems, their messy complexity, will also be increasingly important for developing graduate employability beyond a statistical measure. Skills training has become the new norm in universities, but what difference to student capabilities – or employer attitudes to graduates – has the recent push on employability really made? We need to move on from skills and bring in new ideas if we are to compete globally in terms of graduate attributes and behaviours.

At Brunel University London we’re putting plans in place for a pilot beginning in October. We’re starting small, initially sticking to safe territory with free legal advice that enhances existing pro-bono activities, so that we can have a solid basis for extending the offering across the colleges, getting arts, humanities and social sciences involved as much as the more obvious vocational areas like business. Under the pilot, a mixture of professional and academic staff and students will provide legal advice to students through the university’s well developed advice centre, gaining experience and training in an advisory role, with time to tweak the nature of the service before opening it up to the general public.

More universities need to follow our lead if we are to have an increasingly tangible impact on society and support the aims of economic growth and prosperity for all.

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