Reach out, engage, and build your career
In many communities, the local university is one of the largest employers, occupies a big chunk of real estate, and brings quite a bit of income into the community. However, since the student body is no longer all-local and staff are recruited from far and wide, a closer connection can sometimes be lost.
For individual academics and universities alike, this is a real shame. It impacts on low levels of local university attainment, and a lack of impact in areas where academics may actually have applicable expertise. A “town and gown” divide that becomes too great can also create an unpleasant atmosphere for students and staff, and lead to adverse decisions by local government about university expansion, student housing, and funding.
However, some UK universities are taking their position as potential community partners very seriously indeed. This story profiles three projects that may inspire you to think of ways to reach out to a community that may be visible from your office window, but may nevertheless seem like another world.
University of Brighton: CUPP.
The Community University Partnership Programme (CUPP) has been running for ten years. It involves over 100 academics and over 1000 students in community research, development and service projects across Brighton, Eastbourne and Hastings.
For example, CUPP has sponsored a partnership between UB academics, students in the School of Social Sciences, and mental health charities to help local people experiencing mental ill health get involved in outdoor activities, such as allotment gardening. It’s a research opportunity for staff that has resulted in publications, and gives students a chance to experience the real world of innovative mental health provision and partnership working with charities and the NHS.
University of Bradford: PPC.
The University of Bradford has been particularly involved in community cohesion work, such as sponsoring interfaith dialogues. This has included research and practice in areas such as facilitating dialogue across cultural barriers, sponsoring events, and then building what is learned in the community into relevant university programmes. Its Programme for a Peaceful City (PPC) has gained plaudits and influence, in Bradford and beyond.
University of Nottingham: ICT students to the rescue.
At the University of Nottingham, there are many opportunities for both staff and students to lend their expertise to community groups in need. The IT Community Consultants Project, for example, brings trained student volunteers into community groups, helping them make better choices about hardware, software, processes, Web sites and social media.
Students taking part gain CV credits and references, and the community demand has only increased over the programme’s three-year run.
Community engagement programmes elsewhere include public law clinics, providing evaluation services for local government or voluntary sector activities, consultation services, and deployment of enthusiastic student volunteers in all sorts of crucial areas.
Whatever your academic discipline, there is likely to be a local application in an area where commercial services may not be available. The links you make will improve the university’s reputation, help you stay in touch with everyday practice in your field, and motivate both staff and students by showing them the benefits of their study, research and effort.