Breaking down the barriers between town and gown

It may have Cambridge University’s rubber stamp on it, but the Festival of Ideas (19-30 October) goes beyond the ivory towers. For those who want to see what’s on, have a look at the programme. (PDF file)

This year, the Festival strands are ‘Communication’, ‘Freedom’ and ‘Revolution’

This tells me that followers of both my blog and of Puffles the baby dragon fairy on Twitter are more than likely to be interested in some of the things that are going to be kicking off. Comedy, poetry, politics, history, art, drama, film, science, music and lots of complicated stuff! Not a copy of celebrity magazines in sight! (Hopefully).

I never even knew Cambridge University had a ‘Community Affairs’ team until…oooh…about two minutes ago. The history of town-gown rivalries in university cities is broadly well-known. I came across the institutional barriers of ‘You’re not university types so bugger off’ comments from university staff during my childhood in Cambridge – which is why I’m glad that at least part of the university has realised that Cambridge is more than just a university. It is in its interests to look after and take care of the communities that live around it too.

One of my biggest criticisms of Cambridge University I’ve thrown is that for too long its isolated itself from the rest of us that have grown up either in its shadow or completely oblivious to its presence. Other than Homerton College bringing in lots of us schoolkids to help train their teachers (my primary school was in walking distance) by just being there, the only active engagement I can remember was when we were driven to university labs for some “Science at work” workshops. In cash-starved state schools (this was the early 1990s) there was only so much science teachers could do. Science lessons in mobile classrooms? Yep, that was my experience too.

Yet when taken to state of the art laboratories and given lessons in chemistry using sweets of various flavours, to seeing what happened to various types of class when you threw raindrops at it…at the speed of sound…exactly.

One of the biggest missed opportunities having grown up in a place like Cambridge was the lack of interaction between the two universities (Anglia Ruskin is also there) and the local schools around them. Fortunately there seems to be (for whatever reason) a greater awareness and desire by universities across the country to engage with schools in their locality – and events such as the festivals of science and of ideas as those that take place in Cambridge are positive steps. But they can go further.

I wonder what impact it would have on our children and young people if the engagement between schools and universities was systematic – where there was this automatic expectation that university departments would open their doors and access to their students and experts that, for cities that have universities in them are on their doorsteps? What would the impact be of University College and Imperial College London’s students and staff engaging with schools in some of the most deprived parts of inner city London? Ditto with universities in Birmingham, Manchester, Liverpool, Newcastle, Bristol and Southampton to name but a few?  What would the impact be on the students studying at our elite universities if those institutions said that part of the deal of studying there was to share their knowledge with the schools around them? (Or at least inside those institutions making it clear that there was a culture of expectation that this was what was expected of them).

Rather than having lots of ‘Private, keep out!’ signs all over the place, how about ‘Welcome – come inside and have a look around!’ signs? The Festival of Ideas will be about not just having a look around, but engagement and taking part too. I’m planning on attending a number of events. For those of you who live or are able to visit Cambridge for this festival, which events interest you?


3 thoughts on “Breaking down the barriers between town and gown

  1. We did do something like that at the University of Birmingham. I was part of a group of third year students that went into inner city sixth forms and colleges to tutor and try to encourage pupils to apply for university.

  2. At my University, Hull, we have what are called ACE days – Aiming for a College Education. We bring in Year 9 students from across East Yorkshire, northern Lincolnshire and even South Yorkshire to tell them what University life is like – finance, courses, research and the rest of it. We take them on a campus tour, play a version of Top Trumps with Universities and all kinds of other things. We also bring in primary school children and plenty of sixth formers as well to do similar events. These are run by the University and are staffed by student volunteers such as myself.

    We also have events for single schools where we take them into departments to show them work they’ve been doing. A favourite example of mine is taking them to the computer science department, to show them our AI and the 3D computer interface they’ve got. Children and teachers have written back to us after these days saying that we’ve helped change their minds – that University can be something they can achieve and get into and that they’re much clearer about what needs to be done.

    I agree entirely with you that Universities must engage in their local communities and must not closet themselves away – I hope the example above helps show that we’re not as bad as some of those you mention seem to be! I think we could do more with individual departments, though, bringing in some of the exciting research we do and some of the teaching that we deliver to really bring the message to school children more assertively. Through projects like the University Technical Colleges and the Technology and Innovation Centres, I think we can go a further step towards this goal of integrating city services, businesses and Universities.

    I also think many communities cut themselves off from Universities – I know that students aren’t always greeted well and academics are rarely known outside the cloisters of learning. There needs to be reciprocation from both sides in this relationship if we are to tear down these barriers. Ultimately, the economic, social and educational benefits from doing so are, I believe, colossal.

  3. In Manchester, we develop community-university partnerships between staff and local groups. We’ll be celebrating them shortly an award to recognise their contributions to the the neighbourhoods surrounding the Universities in Greater Manchester. There is much that can be done when we get over the initial perception that we won’t, can’t work together. Indeed there are man community university partnerships and networks around the world – check out the global communique here:

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