Engagement with communities at the moment is only marginal to the organisation, funding, management and strategic control of universities. More should be done to promote engagement and make university knowledge readily accessible for the benefit of excluded communities. This is the main finding from research funded by the Economic and Social Research Council.
Current policy pressures on universities to focus on improving their research excellence and to widen participation make it hard for them to engage meaningfully with excluded communities. This reduces their benefits for excluded communities.
The report calls on universities to help change the lives of people living in the deprived communities local to them and to manage their engagement more strategically.
Currently, community engagement tends to be done ‘by’ universities, ‘to’ communities. Universities offer access to facilities, services and learning but there are few opportunities for community learning activities to become embedded within universities, even where there is a close fit with universities’ own needs. This means universities miss out on the chance to help develop ‘social capital’ in these communities. Social capital is the networks and relationships between groups which helps hold communities together and bind them into the rest of the country.
To help them increase their impact, the researchers have developed a strategy which involves creating small-scale learning communities and linking academics with community groups. Beyond this, the activities of communities should be linked temporarily to core university teaching and research to allow the activities to professionalise and grow. The final strand is to ‘spin out’ these activities into the deprived communities to develop further, allowing them to address particular symptoms arising from social exclusion.
The report cites the case of the Moneyline initiative, which emerged from Salford University to address financial exclusion. Moneyline is an example of where a community engagement activity moved out of the university and developed into a social innovation that spread into excluded communities. This was behind the idea of Community Investment Trusts, which have grown to become a feature of the financial landscape.