In a blistering speech earlier this year, international higher education policy expert Professor Ellen Hazelkorn argued that while higher education historically has had a close relation with the city and country of its founding, today universities are “considered part of the elite” and have become disengaged from their communities.

“Disturbingly … [universities] have transformed themselves into self-serving private entities less engaged or committed to their nation/region as they eagerly pursue their world-class position and shout about the public good.”

Is she right?

Well, while it may be true globally of some institutions, it clearly does not apply to them all.

Indeed, there is a clear and countervailing push by many universities for a deeper and more purposeful engagement with their local communities.

Let’s look at some examples.

In Australia, the University of Tasmania has been working to reinvigorate the island state’s economy which, in the words of vice-chancellor Professor Peter Rathjen, has been “confounded by high levels of underemployment … poor social mobility and an economic environment that supports an average wage some 20 per cent below the mainland average”.

New programs have been launched including associate degrees designed to drive access and boost employability.

“These programs, delivered in the regional Tasmanian centres, will produce graduates to meet local industry needs, and carry up to 100 per cent credit towards bachelors entry,” he says.

“The first participants have been from cohorts not traditionally associated with university study, and not attracted to bachelor programs.”

Participate with success

Critical to reversing a culture “that does not see or understand the benefits of post-secondary education” is lifting the visibility and profile of the university so that prospective students can see and interact with university life “to understand that their school mates and relations – people like them – can participate with success”.

And so the university is building new inner-city campuses in Launceston and Burnie, new infrastructure in the Hobart city centre, and links to improved transport options.

“Defining a position for the university at the heart of the community that is Tasmania is a statement of the importance we attach to knowledge, education and innovation as the foundations of tomorrow, and recognition that it is from that community that we draw authenticity and meaning.”

In another example of community engagement, Professor Adam Shoemaker, vice-chancellor of Southern Cross University and a leading researcher in Indigenous literature and culture, has described his university’s work with the Australian Indigenous Mentoring Experience program.

Its Coffs Harbour campus, the university’s smallest, was one of the first sites outside of Sydney to have an AIME program, starting 12 years ago. More than 1000 Indigenous students are being mentored in AIME this year, he writes, including at locations in Lismore, the Gold Coast “and everywhere that we operate”.

“Although Southern Cross is one of smallest universities in Australia by total population, it has one of the highest Indigenous participation rates of any institution of higher education in the nation,” he says.

High-tech collaboration

Meanwhile in the UK, the University of Sheffield’s Advanced Manufacturing Research District is a high-tech collaboration between research and industry, focused on aerospace, automotive, medical tech and nuclear energy. University scientists, engineers and students work side-by-side with industry in a high-tech skunkworks designed “to solve live problems and create value”.

Operating alongside all this is a brilliant innovative venture called the University Apprentice Training Centre established and run by the university.

Here 600 bright young people from poor working-class backgrounds are employed by top companies and are gaining an education in a top-level industrial research context.

As Sheffield vice-chancellor Sir Keith Burnett explains, the first cohort are now starting their foundation degree course and will progress to manufacturing engineering courses as the years proceed.

“This means that we have student apprentices learning the skills of the future and able to choose their careers. They are not having a second-class education and don’t have to choose a vocational ‘alternative’ … they are at university and will, one day, graduate with a degree and as much pride as anyone else.”

And business see the value proposition as well, with McLaren to site their new factory in Sheffield in order to collaborate with Sheffield University Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre, and companies such as Rolls Royce, well-established collaborators with Sheffield, investing in these technical apprentices.

Enterprising and innovative

Also in the UK, one of the country’s lesser-known universities has come up with an enterprising and innovative scheme aimed at boosting the educational opportunities particularly for the many disadvantaged people within its catchment.

London South Bank University is pioneering a plan to deliver a comprehensive range of educational offerings for residents and employers in its corner of south central London.

Working with several local organisations such as the South Bank Engineering Academy and a new Institute for Professional and Technical Education it has established a “Family of Educational Providers”, offering a range of educational and technical skills programs under an agreed educational framework and aligned pedagogic and curriculum approaches.

Its aim is to provide learners of all levels and ages “with high quality education when they need it and in ways which best suit their needs … Learners will be able to transfer easily between technical, vocational and academic pathways, building a portfolio of skills, experience and qualifications”.

One of the benefits of the “Family” set-up, says vice-chancellor Professor David Phoenix, is that institutions working together are better placed to widen participation than any single provider.

“By having a joint educational framework they can create individualised learning pathways which enable students to learn what they need, with the right learning approach for them.”

Close collaboration between institutions means that pupils from local schools benefit from use of university facilities and contact with undergraduate students who provide mentoring, he says.

Phoenix says that one of the problems around government and university strategies to widen participation is that they put too much emphasis on academic pathways and so ignore the majority of learners, and also overlook those engaged in further and vocational study.

Choices for re-entering education are severely limited, he says, if students fail the “age-determined hurdles” of school and university exams

The “Family” seeks to address this by providing access back into education both through adult education courses and through an Institute of Professional and Technical Education, which also helps employers to upskill their staff.

Boosting low-income graduates

Meanwhile in the US, the 11 universities that make up the University Innovation Alliance recently released new data showing they have increased the number of graduates from low income families at their institutions by 24.7 per cent in the past three years.

As reported in Inside Higher Ed, when the alliance began three years ago, the goal was to graduate an additional 68,000 undergraduates by 2025 and have at least half of those students come from low-income families.

“The total number of undergraduate degrees awarded by the members has increased by 9.2 per cent since 2014 – from 79,170 to 86,436. The alliance is expected to exceed public attainment goals, with an additional 94,000 graduates by 2025.”

Organisations such as the Achieving the Dream community college alliance and the Frontier Set group are also helping more students achieve their educational goals.

As Daniel Greenstein reports in Impatient Optimists, there are also “great examples of performance measures that focus on opportunity rather than selectivity”.

These include Washington Monthly, which publishes college rankings that focus on access and success for low-income students and working adults; while The Equality of Opportunity Project assesses colleges and universities on the movement of their students from lower to higher income categories.

* Does your university have great community engagement strategies you’d like to tell the world about? Let me know at [email protected]


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