The Collaborative University: connecting people, place and policy
Key tipping points in history almost always serve to pick at old scabs and reawaken fresh wounds. It would be fair to cite Brexit as the most recent for the UK. A resounding (and for some, catastrophic) event essentially highlighting a number of inconvenient truths about the society we live in today, several of which we collectively struggle to talk about.
The area that signals the most dire implications for how our society is progressing (or rather regressing) is the educational divide that exists, and what Danny Dorling described as ‘an apartheid’ education system. This may sound like vitriolic hyperbole, but the truth is not far off. We know that living within certain postcodes across the UK guarantees better educational provision, better healthcare and outcomes, higher life expectancy, and general quality of life, whilst less desirable postcode areas condemn others to poor quality all-of-the-above.
We have grown accustomed to an education system that privileges those that can access and afford it, and as recent research from the Sutton Trust reinforces, this aids a small minority to travel a predictable and economically beneficial trajectory from private early years education, to elite universities, eventually catapulting them into the top echelons of society as judges, doctors, lawyers, politicians, and key decision-makers within our society. We know that access to these institutions develop a whole range of softer skills and personality traits such as confidence, articulation/public speaking ease, networking ability, and collaboration – all of which are increasingly seen as essential assets in the modern job market. And on the other side of the coin, those from disadvantaged backgrounds are all too often denied an entry route into equipping themselves with such skills. The statistics are disproportionate and simply socially unacceptable.
Our work in this sector this year has focused on universities re-imagining, reframing, and re-thinking their purpose and direction towards becoming more collaborative in spirit and practice – playing a vital role connecting knowledge, research, and communities more holistically to address place-based challenges. The HE sector is in a critical position, providing the most direct link to the job market – and at a time when global trends demonstrate the increasing shift towards computerized and highly skilled, knowledge-based roles.
Whilst this is positive in being such a significant contributor to the economy and attracting talent globally, it also signals a future trend of the computerization of many relatively low-skilled jobs that can be replaced by machines and artificial intelligence. The glaring implications of this involve a speedy and radical upskilling of large portions of the population. And not just because this threatens the skills gap, approximately costing the UK economy £10bn a year in lost productivity, but because it is the right thing to do.
The usual suspects and the usual places are often the education system, as a natural link to skills and knowledge. But much ethereal talk about the sector’s inability to climb out of its ‘ivory tower’ and better connect with the local and global environment around it, is disheartening.
And so our work has turned its focus on a more recent wave of ‘socially conscious’, civic, and wholly more collaborative educational institutions that hold huge potential to upskill and share knowledge with communities and swathes of the population that would not normally access such opportunity.
Our developing initiative, the Centre for Urban Collaboration with London South Bank University and the Weekes Centre is one following in this vein. This cross-sector programme is choosing to invest in a long-term relationship with its local communities to develop a human capital strategy across a place that uses new and existing networks to play a role shaping education provision across the life-cycle, in a way that is deeply connected to the future needs of the local economy.
In our upcoming inaugural report, ‘The Collaborative University: A framework for civic engagement and collaborative practice’, we present a framework for change that universities, and more broadly civic institutions and organisations interested in broadening their public/civic engagement appeal can apply to their work. We have argued that the benefits of being a more ‘collaborative university’ brings the possibility of:
THE COLLABORATIVE UNIVERSITY AT THE HEART OF A HUMAN CAPITAL STRATEGY FOR PLACE ` – this is about universities taking seriously their role as an anchor education; acting as the ‘connector creating communities’ and the driver of innovation across education settings.
THE COLLABORATIVE UNIVERSITY DRIVING LOCAL SOCIAL POLICY & INCLUSIVE GROWTH AGENDAS – this is about universities being more confident and intentional in its potential role as a strategic influence and resource for its local authorities, NHS bodies and ‘place-shaping’ organisations.
THE COLLABORATIVE UNIVERSITY AS SHARED SPACE FOR A CREDIBLE COMMUNITY CONVERSATION – this is about universities investing in a long term relationship with their local citizens and communities, drawing inspiration from Chicago’s Centre for Urban Research and Learning (CURL) to become a trusted partner, a nexus of community insight, and a means of plugging citizens and place in to high level debates on the future of growth and public service reform
THE COLLABORATIVE UNIVERSITY DRIVING ‘SMART’ ASSET MAPPING ACROSS PLACE – this is about universities taking external stakeholder engagement a step further by using asset mapping techniques to better understand the local demographics, and effectively use data about diverse strengths and resources that already exist to serve the needs of the local place.
There is something incredibly powerful about the ‘spirit’ and methodology of initiatives like the Centre for Urban Collaboration, that represent a shift in focus from consumption to participation, and the acknowledgment of collaborative problem-solving to address the most local and national challenges. The hope is that such models do not operate in a vacuum of other public services that could and should take a leaf out of an alternative, more collaborative mode of delivery.
Reverting to history once again and its impact on the present, the implications of an event like Brexit are still pure conjecture – no body can be sure what this really means for public expenditure, EU funding, policy and delivery resources, and it will likely take time. But like any crisis or important development in society, there is always opportunity, and there couldn’t be a bigger one for the HE sector to seize right now.