The Role of Universities in Communities

The recently announced closure of the childcare provision at Anglia Ruskin University has been justified by the argument that the nursery is subsidising places for local community parents, and that this represents a misuse of resources that could be better committed to students.  Putting aside the discussion of whether the figures used to establish this claim are erroneous and misleading, it nonetheless opens up an important question – what is the role of a university in its local community?

06/12/14 Mill Road Winter Fair

Having lived in a number of university cities, it’s clear that the relationship between university and local community is not always an easy one. The role and responsibility of a university to its community is difficult to capture. On a basic level, the relationship is no more complex than for any other business: positive local engagement can create a positive feedback loop – students and employees of the university feel welcome and valued; residents and businesses in the community feel that the university values their support and is sensitive to their concerns, making them likely to be supportive.

This basic relationship is complicated by the system within which contemporary universities operate, an environment dominated by measures and statistics, through which funders and potential staff and students assess teaching, research and student experience. While the need for good community relations suggests the value of maintaining nursery provision at ARU, it is the weight of these metrics that is driving ARU Student Services’ apparently urgent need to create a student lounge.  Yet as the Universities and Colleges Union (UCU) argues, such metrics are “narrow, short-term and utilitarian”, leading to the adoption of audit-driven “defensive education” focussed on minimising complaints – in the case of the nursery, prioritising a larger number of complaints about the inconvenience of available space over a small number of students who can not continue their education without the nursery.

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The evidence suggests that the impact of such metrics on student degree choices is minimal. In addition, and of critical importance, is that such metrics do not capture the social, economic and cultural role of universities in their local communities. The umbrella body Universities UK describes meeting the needs of the community as “one of the core aims of UK higher education” (2010). A report from Universities UK and the New Economics Foundation goes further, arguing that a university that is engaged with its local community contributes to “strengthening the glue that holds society together” (New Economics Foundation, 2011) across a range of social and cultural spheres. In particular, citing the example of Birkbeck University’s outreach programe, the report highlights the importance of universities in opening higher education to parents who would not otherwise have access.

Anglia Ruskin University has no formal responsibility to provide a nursery facility for the community or even its staff and students – although many other universities do, and even though, as described elsewhere on this blog, it is important in supporting equality of opportunity. However, the proposed closure of the nursery represents a disavowal of the university’s role in the community.This is tragic, given the potential benefit to both the community and the university that could derive from a more constructive engagement.