Universities Need to Remain Relevant #15 #cong20


As universities become successful businesses focus has shifted away from the local community to the global consumer. Deindustrialisation, austerity and now Covid-19 are decimating communities. Universities need to shift some of their focus inward to ensure they remain relevant.

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Key Takeaways:

  1. Universities are tasked to serve the entire community
  2. They need to engage more with communities living with austerity
  3. Universities need to re-think access to learning
  4. Value lies in recognising the entire community as a learning canvas

About Joanna Norton

I teach creative research at a UK higher education institution. I work with the Departure Lounge, a contemporary art gallery in Luton to develop bespoke creativity sessions for communities living with austerity. I am also a teacher educator, app developer and artist..

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By Joanna Norton.

For universities to remain relevant, they need to deliver benefits for the whole community, especially for those who will never have the privilege of studying at one.  Stephen Ball from the Institute of Education argues that universities have become bastions of neoliberalism.  Higher Education in the UK has the second highest proportion of temporary, short-term and zero-hour employment contracts after the leisure and tourism industry.  Entry to higher education is increasingly governed by access to personal finance.  Escalating tuition fees along with the rising cost of study is causing a reduction in the diversity of the student body.  With insufficient income to invest in their education, lower middle class and working class students are disappearing from registers. To plug the gap, each school now has their own business team focused on tempting international students to their respective campuses.  While international students add huge value to learning, their presence has ensured university strategy has turned global, while the need remains local.

Austerity has ravaged communities. Its imposition on swathes of people forcibly separated from their industrial pasts has been brutal. As Covid-19 moves through these same streets, the ability of these communities to navigate their way to a 3.0 society is increasingly precarious. Universities are investing heavily to ensure their student-consumers are prepared for an uncertain future. While all stakeholders acknowledge that this uncertain future is coming, they struggle to predict with any great certainty when it will be. Yet, the lack of economic privilege along with the time to simply ponder such questions prevents underserved communities joining the debate. Indeed, many simply dismiss the question at hand. For such communities, the uncertain future that others are frantically trying to mitigate against, is already here.

We need to re-think access to learning. Access to learning journals remain locked behind paywalls, while wider debate, often ill-informed, rages online. Academic staff, mostly hourly paid, are tasked to serve the needs of the global elite rather than the needs of the communities in which they live. Obsession with shiny buildings ignores the increasing availability of learning spaces and local expertise within communities. Solutions to real-world challenges often lie outside academia, yet the exclusion of diverse voices increasingly undermines the relevance of universities. The following are some initiatives I developed to ensure knowledge is both relevant and accessible:

1. Luton 2050 is inspired by the concept of Paris 2050. Paris is committed to reducing greenhouse gasses by 75% by 2050 and proponents suggest architecture will play a crucial role in this process. With schools and members of the wider community we looked at:

  • the future of housing for a community of renters
  • converting disused buildings into urban farms as a solution to food poverty
  • sharing learning around aquaponics and hydroponics with communities in sub-Saharan Africa through the local diaspora

2. Learning in the launderette. A local Kashmiri woman has run the local launderette in Luton for over 25 years and has a hidden wealth of knowledge behind the science of washing clothes. She has repeatedly turned down offers to collaborate with scientific experiments because those who approach her use ‘too many big words’. Finding ways to connect her local expertise with scientific innovations is a learning objective for students. Identifying areas of expertise with the wider community is another.

3. As the fashion industry strives to become more sustainable students need greater exposure to successful models. Traditional practices within sub-Saharan communities along with the Asian subcontinent are part of the solution. Connecting fashion students to local designers to improve practices and share technical knowledge makes learning relevant. Business models that emerge from this process have greater potential to be sustainable. The local diaspora is the mediator.

Universities need to remain relevant especially in this precarious environment. They also need to remain relevant for those who will never set foot on campus. Using the community as a site of learning offers one possible potential.

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