Building a truly civic response to the pandemic

For Richard Brabner and the new Civic University Network, fostering relationships is central to the sector's response to supporting society during and after Covid-19

Stan is 90 and frail. Once a week his carer visits with the shopping, and his grandson occasionally calls from Canada, but that’s about it. Stan is lonely and isolated.

Stan’s story is not unique. In the UK, 21 to 31 per cent of people report that they feel lonely some of the time. Yet Stan is lucky. He is part of an experiment run by enthusiastic social entrepreneurs who want to make a difference.

They found out that he loves music and decide to create a music phone group for like-minded folk. They simply play music down the phone to the group and get them to talk to each other afterwards. A few weeks in, Agatha – one of the other members of the group – decides to meet him in person. Stan is delighted with the visit. He feels more confident and decides to leave his room for the first time in months. His life is transformed.

The power of relationships

Stan’s story is recalled by Hilary Cottam in her influential book Radical Help. Cottam writes powerfully on how services are essentially designed to manage needs but do not effectively build people’s capabilities so that they can stand on their own two feet. Her book details five experiments where she and her team design an alternative relationship-centred approach to tackling some of our major social ills. These experiments make a bigger difference to people like Stan and cost the taxpayer less, than traditional welfare services.

When thinking about the impact of Covid-19 this experiment is at the forefront of my mind. The impact of the crisis on loneliness will be huge, as will reintegrating the isolated back into society once this is all over. While the crisis is daunting, with a bit of time and creativity there is so much we can do to mitigate its effects and help our communities. Universities – as part of their civic mission – will be at the heart of this effort.

Civics lesson

Over the last couple of weeks, Wonkhe has published a series of articles on the impact of Covid-19 on the sector. From the mental and physical wellbeing of staff and students, to admissions and assessment, to concerns over the September start of the year. There’s a huge amount universities are grappling with right now, and these business-critical issues are clearly the priority.

Yet this crisis has highlighted how important universities’ civic role is.

Already we are seeing lots of examples of universities stepping up in a time of need to help the NHS and our local communities overcome this emergency. Across our country institutions are providing equipment and facilities for local hospitals, developing research to tackle the impact of the disease, providing online learning resources for children no longer at school, encouraging their staff and students to volunteer to support those in need, and much, much more besides.

And once the immediate priorities have been progressed, many universities will be actively working to support their local communities overcome the long-term social and economic challenges that will result from this crisis.

Social network

With that in mind, today the UPP Foundation has announced that Sheffield Hallam University has been chosen to host the Civic University Network. Sheffield Hallam will be supported by several partner organisations and it is an initiative jointly funded by the UPP Foundation, Department for Education, Carnegie UK Trust and Arts Council England.

Hallam will be an outstanding host for the Network – bringing their expertise and leadership of the civic agenda to bear on the Network’s activities. Given the situation, the first aim of the Network will be to encourage and support a sector-wide response to Covid-19. This will involve issuing supportive guidance and best practice to all universities; and providing opportunities for university civic leads to discuss and collaborate with each other and key sectors – such as the NHS Confederation and local government bodies – on joint approaches to supporting their local areas.

The Network will help universities respond quickly but it will focus on the sector’s longer-term response to this crisis. We know the virus will have a transformational impact on our towns, cities and communities. Some of these changes are unknown but others are predictable. We know, for example, that the “lockdown” will exacerbate the problems with the high street. We know there will be issues around skills and employment. We know that civil society and charities – organisations on the front line of this crisis – are facing huge problems with capacity and funding. We know there will be people like Stan who we need to reintegrate back into society. These are some of the issues the Civic University Network could help the sector get to grips with.

In partnership

While universities can’t overcome these challenges on their own, in partnership with other key anchor organisations in their locality they will be able to make a big difference to helping places survive and ultimately thrive post-coronavirus.

Like Cottam’s experiments, at the heart of overcoming this crisis will be the importance universities (and others) place on relationships. There is a substantial bank of evidence which shows that when relationships are valued, people are happier and healthier, and organisations are more effective.

One of the things I’m most excited about is the partnership Hallam is developing with the National Co-ordinating Centre for Public Engagement and the Institute of Community Studies to develop a positive approach to working with community-based organisations. This partnership will be essential to the Civic University Network as it delivers a suite of activity to support universities design relationship-centred civic activity. An approach focused on helping communities overcome their problems, not one that manages decline. A truly civic response to this crisis.

If you want to get involved with the sector’s civic response to this crisis please get in touch – and for more information on the Civic University Network as it develops, contact civicuniversity@shu.ac.uk.

One response to “Building a truly civic response to the pandemic

  1. Thanks for the information and there are many of us ambassadors out there keen to engage with their communities using HEIs, colleges and schools as our intermediaries.

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