On a cold, grey January day earlier this year, myself and two colleagues began our working day at The Carousel – a co-working community and event space in the heart of Nottingham.
It wasn’t that we had grown weary of our own office space or work-from-home set-ups – it was a planned activity designed to physically dislocate the process of applying for a PhD from the usual context of a university campus.
It was a day that challenged our expectations. We had anticipated meeting perhaps a handful of potential PhD candidates to answer questions about the application process.
Instead, we had a full day of conversations with local people who were considering, some for the first time, the possibility that they could become involved in research that would have a positive impact on their communities.
Given a recent report which highlights the fragility of national support for publicly funded research and development (especially among those from lower socioeconomic backgrounds), it felt particularly important to be making efforts to communicate the potential benefits of research to members of the public.
Over 25 people came through the door to speak with us that day. One person brought their mum, and another one their baby, who obligingly sat quietly while their parent asked us about the pragmatics of part-time study.
It seemed that changing places – and significantly, leaving university grounds – was helping open doors to doctoral study more widely than we had initially expected.
Civic engagement is a critical aspect of how universities can contribute to public good, and it is well understood that connections between academic institutions and their local communities are vital in facilitating knowledge exchange and economic growth.
The formation of the Civic University Network in 2020, and the recently launched National Civic Impact Accelerator, which supports the development of sustainable and collaborative partnerships between universities and local stakeholders, are indicative of the increased interest and investment of the sector in place-based strategies.
Yet despite the sector’s focus on strategic civic engagement, and recent policy interventions designed to better connect students and graduates with local employers (perhaps most notably the OfS Challenge Competition), there has been less attention paid to the potential role for postgraduate research to improve links between universities and their local partners.
Whilst other opportunities for collaborative doctoral education do exist, these are often connected to particular sectors, and do not focus on place, or the potential for localised research impact.
According to the National Coordinating Centre for Public Engagement (NCCPE), who undertook a review of UK universities’ research, innovation and engagement activities, interventions at a community level often “do to” communities rather than actively seeking to engage members of the public in the process and design of these interventions.
Their report suggests that effective place-based approaches to research should involve collaborative, participatory methods through which local and regional partners are key contributors, and in which structural inequalities are acknowledged.
Making things better
In our region, the Universities for Nottingham Civic Agreement was born out of the desire to improve levels of economic prosperity, educational opportunity, environmental sustainability and the health and wellbeing of local residents and communities.
It solidifies existing local partnerships between key anchor institutions (such as the local NHS Trust) and the two universities across Nottingham and Nottinghamshire.
This agreement has also been a crucial foundation on which to build the Co(l)laboratory programme, a £5.1m place-based initiative funded by Research England, Nottingham Trent University (NTU) and the University of Nottingham.
The programme sets NTU at the forefront of work to re-examine the idea of “research excellence”, in the context of systemic inequalities that have historically locked out certain types of researchers and research agendas and locked in others.
Co(l)laboratory builds from NTU Research Reimagined – the University’s strategic vision for research to 2025 – which is exploring ways to define and develop a new concept of the university as “research inclusive”.
Co(l)laboratory takes this new approach to doctoral education and training, built on principles of civic engagement, co-creation, and co-production. The programme specifically targets under-represented communities in Nottingham and Nottinghamshire to participate in 50 funded PhD projects over 8 years, in addition to smaller-scale citizen science projects which aim to build research capacity in the local area.
Throughout the programme, academics and community partners engage in ongoing collaborations to design locally relevant, challenge-based PhD projects across disciplinary areas.
An online crowdsourcing platform supplements our programme of face-to-face and virtual events designed to elicit potential research topics and facilitate discussions around local challenges and possible solutions.
As well as having a critical role in shaping the initial design of the PhD projects, community partners – which range from small charities to the local NHS Trust, City and County Councils – will be key stakeholders in the research process, forming part of the supervisory team along with an academic from both Nottingham Trent University and the University of Nottingham.
Shifting the focus
Along with its civic mission, there is potential for the Co(l)laboratory model to effect change in both the types of research being undertaken, as well as in the culture of how research is done, reflecting wider sector efforts to shift the focus of research and assessment practices.
Co(l)laboratory responds to existing inequalities in the research workforce, too, recognising that access to PhD study is not equal and that those from different backgrounds, including minoritised ethnic groups, are considerably less likely to access research funding.
This is a critical issue for both individuals and institutions, as the PhD is a key indicator of increased graduate earnings across employment sectors (as evidenced in recent analysis by Vitae), as well as the lack of diversity in doctoral student populations contributing to the under-representation of many groups in senior academic roles.
Principles of inclusion have underpinned the Co(l)laboratory recruitment process, drawing on a new competency-based admissions framework for PhD study, developed in a concurrent project funded by the OfS to support those from minoritised ethnic groups to access doctoral degrees.
Co(l)laboratory PhD opportunities were promoted to local community groups and organisations, with online webinars and a physical drop-in session offered to potential candidates in order to learn more about PhD study.
Application and interview processes were designed to be inclusive of those with a range of professional rather than purely academic experience, challenging the notions underpinning admissions criteria used in traditional doctoral training programmes which tend to prioritise candidates’ academic excellence.
All candidates have been offered feedback – along with opportunities to attend development workshops designed to support future successful applications – as part of broader efforts to facilitate access to doctoral education.
Over the summer, we hope to start a sector-wide conversation at an event about best practice in inclusive recruitment for doctoral students, to further develop these initiatives.
The first cohort of Co(l)laboratory PhD students start in April 2023, and later this month, around 100 Nottingham-based academics, civic employers and PhD students will gather in the city’s Council House for a launch and induction event.
Learning from our positive experiences during the drop-in day at The Carousel, we intend to hold our ongoing events and training sessions at various locations across the city and county, reflecting the diverse nature of communities represented in the research projects being undertaken.
Perhaps re-locating these types of events to civic spaces is critical in reflecting universities’ commitments to doing truly community-informed research.
Rebekah Smith-McGloin is the Director of NTU Doctoral School and Research Operations and Principal Investigator for the Co(l)laboratory programme.