This article is more than 4 years old

Serving local people means opening up to them

As the social infrastructure of the UK decays, Ben Vulliamy wonders whether we shouldn't share what we have to benefit communities
This article is more than 4 years old

Ben Vulliamy is the CEO of the University of York Students’ Union

A recent comment piece in the Guardian talked about the decay of the UK “social infrastructure” – and left me thinking about how this should be a key focus of universities and SUs civic partnership work.

The article shared some of the statistics about the 760 youth clubs that have shut across since 2012. That a pub closes every 12 hours in the UK. That nearly 130 libraries were scrapped last year alone and that, of those that survive, they reduced their opening times by a collective 230,000 hours per year. It comments on the sale of park land and the closure of high street shops.

All stark evidence of how we are losing the spaces and places where communities form, friendships are made, and where people relax, share, debate and have fun in one another’s company. And add to this further evidence about the theatres, museums, galleries and performance spaces in our towns and cities. There are huge holes forming – with over £1bn cuts in public spending in the arts since 2010.

Social infrastructure is important. Without it we lose the spaces for transformative, lifelong, collaborative relationships to form – the sorts of friendships that combine fun with personal and social development. These are relationships that grow aspirations and allow collaboration to establish new ideas and enterprise. We lose the places where culture is shared and celebrated. We lose the environments where we make friends that enrich ours and others lives.


Over the past decade, universities have been relatively well insulated against this erosion of social infrastructure. Within our campus bubbles there is evidence of libraries being made larger and their opening hours extended. Students’ union buildings are growing and being given better facilities. Venues and performance spaces are increasing on our campuses.

Grant funding is distributed to students to run drama groups, radio stations, volunteering programs, fundraising events and cultural festivals. Universities have, thankfully, been able to preserve (and in some cases extend) the investment into social infrastructure over a period where the UK more widely has been bitten by austerity with the arts, shopping and relationship forming moving to a virtual, online only domain. But has the insulation led to insular thinking on civic?

Thinking civic

The civic universities agenda has gained real prominence in recent years as we have seen evidence of the large political, social, cultural and economic gaps between institutions and their wider locality. But while most universities quantify their local economic impact, examples of research, analysis and strategy that quantifies or substantively drives the cultural or social impact of universities on their locality are few and far between.

There are hints – totaling the amount of hours students volunteer in the local community through their students’ union or how much money they fundraise through RAG student fundraising programs for reinvestment into charities. There’s occasional public lectures or civic receptions. But frequently these are isolated attempts to grab some civic headlines rather than a detailed and quantified objective to grow the regions social capital or redress the demise of social infrastructure across a city.

So the civic universities agenda can support the investment case for universities to take a new approach to creating social infrastructure. The Office for Students submission to the UPP Civic Universities Commission stated that

Civic university agreements have the potential to have a positive impact on access to and outcomes from higher education, while also helping local communities and businesses. Many higher education providers already act as “anchor institutions”, making important contributions to local economic, social, cultural and environmental wellbeing”

In truth, civic engagement right now sits buried within the university portfolios of widening participation and research. But if we try to embed it more deeply across the student body, the students’ union strategy and the institution at large this could dramatically deepen civic engagement. It would result in a little less obsessing over the economic impact of universities on localities, and better development of objectives and performance metrics that monitored the quality and impact of relationships we form with our wider community.

When OfS talks about the “important contributions to local economic, social, cultural and environmental wellbeing”, ideally we would evidence this with examples of how health care in the city is better interlinked with the university provision of student support, or about how the public transport system has been developed to support the social mobility of not just students but the elderly, the unemployed and the independent businesses across the city. It would mean case studies of community groups and student groups coming together to perform to more diverse audiences.

Deeper and wider

Here’s the opportunity. There is chance for universities, students’ unions and students to use their social infrastructure and capital to broaden and deepen their civic relationships. If we can continue to create spaces and social capital that enable relationships to prosper, we should deliberately intend to invite our wider communities to come and share that with us.

So if we distribute precious grant funding to our student groups, we should focus it on those clubs, societies, liberation groups and volunteering projects who will share and grow their civic impact. We should inspire and develop student leaders who want to grow their communities beyond the student body. We should enable our international student community to share their cultures not just on the campus but across the cities they live within. We should reach further out into the regions in which our institutions exist. Our libraries, venues, shops, green space, performances, debates, displays, campaigns, events, volunteer initiatives can grow our relationships with people on and off campus. They can show that universities and students are not self-interested but altruistic, respectful, generous and collaborative.

It’s not easy this

A new approach is not without challenges. Space is at a premium and we would have to think creatively about human and physical capacity. It means factoring in – in curriculum design, service planning and estates management the need to meet not just student expectations, but the needs of wider communities. We would need to have some of the difficult conversations about balancing the “sticky campus” with the fact that many of our students aren’t living in a hermetically sealed campus bubble but are living, working, socialising on and off campus.

But the rewards are real if we can resolve some of these issues. Students can develop deeper and wider relationships that enhance their sense of citizenship and grow their personal networks. The university will start to change the public narrative and grow a deeper trust with the local communities they exist within. Towns and cities will benefit from better public services, and in turn around in the demise of their social infrastructure. The potential for mutual benefit from focussing our civic agenda on social infrastructure and relationships is huge.

4 responses to “Serving local people means opening up to them

  1. This is all very true Ben. Even when universities offer up facilities (e.g. Sports) for community use it is usually done on separate timings rather than events that bring people together. Lots that could be done.

  2. A simple idea: Each university offers a ‘TimeBank’ of student and staff skills to its immediate local communities

  3. Interesting piece Ben. We totally agree that universities are well placed to build and support social infrastructure. We work with a group of social enterprise universities, which are all committed to playing an important role in the social, cultural and economic development of society.

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