Narratives on higher education: slumming it on civic engagement

There are a number of ways in which universities interact with their local communities. Some are negative – like the fallout from the studentification which have made the lives of local and long-term residents unpleasant, and their homes and streets blighted.

Some are positive – the ‘anchoring’ of universities to the community provides stability and sustainability in cities where de-industrialisation has otherwise ‘de-purposed’ cities. There is also the threat of “market exit”, which could endanger a local economy with the loss of jobs and the student pound multiplier effect.

Community involvement is often characterised by student volunteering – with schools, environmental groups and the disabled enough. We could quantify commitments to calm the disaffected, the left behind local residents who loathe the growth of universities in their small towns and cities. At £10 per hour per volunteer, some universities contribute £1 million per annum to the local community. But this would be a crude measure.

Community volunteering may not the strategic purpose of universities, but the interaction of students can be important and transformative. It won’t replace the loss of funding to local government and community organisations, and ironically it is reductions in central government grant funding that make it more difficult for local organisations to absorb and deploy volunteers. But the narratives of students returning from placement in the community are of a profound change – for both the student and the local population.

Alienation

These cases are highly revealing about how alienated some communities are from (higher) education. In one example, a female language student was placed in a local school with years 7 and 8. None of the pupils had had any contact with anybody who had attended university other than a teacher. Once there was a realisation that university students liked the same music and wore the same make up as them, they were no longer mutually alien creatures. Education might not be uncool.

In another case a male student was on placement for a semester in an inner city primary school; the headteacher’s revealing comment in feedback to the volunteer organisers was that the student was the only adult male the children had any contact with – there were no male teachers in the school, and no adult males in the children’s homes. The point is that the ‘outcomes’ were unintended (one to assist in teaching French, the other to teach geography) and unrelated to plans, inputs, outputs or any other management algorithm. Being within an organic set of relations can be more profound.

Settlement history

An earlier version of this type of university community commitment is interesting, highly significant in the social history of the UK and probably little known now. There was a collection of university students and staff living in the poorest parts of late Victorian and Edwardian cities. The purpose of these settlements – literally housed within the worst slums in the country – was for the young-ish gentlemen and ladies to experience and understand the lives of the poorest. The poor and their slums were terra incognito until the Victorian (and evangelical) reformers began their researches, and the most vulgar version of this interest was a form of “penny to the pauper” tourism which gave us the term ‘Slumming It’. But the earnest reformers lived and worked in the slums to understand and explain what was happening to contradict the common refrains of ‘workshy’, ‘drunks’, ‘feckless’ – eerily familiar terms in the age of poverty-porn reality.

What the inhabitants of the settlements found was a need to describe the social reality – the unknown and the frightening, threatening slums – which led to Fabian contributions to the Lloyd George/Churchill Insurance Acts, and to the purposing of the LSE. Their descriptions of poverty, housing conditions, and more gave a picture of what needed to be done, and the continuing description and analysis of the community that surrounded the universities was a feature of their function and purpose. It was this physical and ethical embeddedness in the communities that was the special feature of the settlement movement. It was not a parachuting exercise; placements in the houses would last for at least year and sometimes several years – and that close relationship of the lived experience beyond the Fabian data gathering enabled the cadre of ‘settlers’ to make remarkable contributions to changing the social and political dispensation of post 1945 UK.

Tone, voice and class

Perhaps there is still a need for narratives and descriptions. What has emerged from the Grenfell fire is the absence of listening, noticing or acting on the claims by the residents before the fire. The complexities of corporate responsibilities of the many contractors involved in the ‘refurbishments’ and the dismissal of the tenants’ organisation’s claims on poor safety needed not only a strong advocacy voice, but also an ability to bring to account a range of agencies through paralegal and political means. The suggestion is not that the case made by the tenants was incoherent – there is a subtler issue of soft power and status of elites within our society. The ear of the ruling dispensation (local or otherwise) is susceptible to ‘tone’ perhaps more than empirical and legal rigour, and there is still a deceptiveness about tone, voice and class which has been continued by some elements of universities which can obscure questions of evidence and civil rights. Universities have the access, and the right pitch of voice, to be noticed and be brave to be advocates for those who live around the universities.

George Lansbury (founder of the Daily Herald and leader of the Labour Party in the 1930s) was sceptical of the motives of the university gentry in the rookeries, but he was won over and changed his opinion of them from ‘prigs’ to a ‘good in society’ by their work in supporting the Jewish refugees arriving in the East End of London in their escape from the Russian pogroms in the 1900s. The needs and delineations of social problems 120 years on are not much different from the Edwardian era – from gin to crack and prescribed drug addiction; from Russia to Afghanistan; from slum terraces to the vertical slums. When Kings or UCL consider their civic engagement they have the challenges of 150 languages spoken, of subsistence existence amongst great wealth, of suspicion of motives and a disempowered local government no longer able to listen to all the voices.

This commitment to a new form of settlement would not enhance the Teaching Excellence Framework outcomes or improve the financial stability of the university; and would require considerable intelligence of the local conditions. But initiatives proposed in the wake of the Civic University Commission by PVCs leading community and public engagement could make a difference that is more than quantifiable volunteering – a real partnership where both parties win or lose together. And if there is a small lesson to this aspect of the university as a civic institution (with its other functions of teaching and research) it is that the function of social mobility may be subsumed to the need for social equity.

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