Building an Urban Serving University: a social relations programme for Coventry

Friday 25 July 2014

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Urban universities are a huge asset for their home cities. They are catalysts for social mobility, investors in infrastructure and providers of extensive employment opportunities. They are magnets for human capital and inward investment. They attract a youthful, cosmopolitan population which can drive local enterprise, creativity and cultural vibrancy. But for universities to be a force for good in their local cities they need to be connected into their social, cultural and economic life.

Professor Mike Hardy, Director of the Centre for Trust, Peace and Social Relations at Coventry University explained:

“We have taken a critical look at how connected we are, or are not, with our host City. Historically, Coventry University and the city of Coventry were well connected and shared a mutually beneficial relationship. But over recent years, Coventry University’s growth and success within a changing, global higher education sector has seen a re-positioning and refreshed outlook. New horizons have opened and new sources of income generated. One consequence has been a changing relationship with the City; we are still close, but for some parts of our work, daily life on campus has become disconnected from the wider city of Coventry.”

Urban-serving universities can be major contributors to their local economies and have a stake in their success Their role in helping to build strong communities through mobilising expertise and collaboration can help revitalise urban neighbourhoods and research issues that support city planning and development, as well as the work of the third sector. Importantly for the University there is also a huge capability and resource in the community from which the university can learn and gain. Getting the two-way relationship and exchange right could transform potential and reconnect in a really positive way.

Encouraged by both the Chancellor and Vice-Chancellor, the team at the Centre led by Mike and Professor Harris Beider, has developed an innovative social relations initiative to re-examine and improve the interface between the city and the University; to reconnect and mobilise assets in both to improve social mobility and well-being. It has taken as its core focus the challenge to create a university that is relevant to all parts of the City.

‘The Coventry City-University Initiative’ is a new programme that aims to address the challenges facing Coventry through the lens of its people and communities, with direct acknowledgement of very low recorded levels of aspiration, chronic skills shortages and stagnant social mobility. It also aims to ensure that the University continues to enhance local impact and undertakes research that helps transformation within the social and economic evolution of the City, in a programme that is both meaningful for the City and for the research excellence with impact in the Centre.

Mike said: ‘The initiative aims to provide opportunity for re-thinking the model for higher education. The project is designed to reach out to those who have not had a good experience of education, or may not feel that the University has little to offer them. We need to place more emphasis on reciprocity, mobilising the resources of both sides. Cities that have been able to associate themselves with a positive narrative of transformation are more resilient and socially sustainable, even more competitive. Those who have allowed a negative narrative about themselves to emerge face much more serious problems to deal with the current global challenges.’

The early design of the Initiative introduces the concept of ‘The Neighbourhood University’ (NU) that will sit at the heart of implementation. Three very distinct areas of the City have been identified for this element; Hillfields, Wood End and Earlsdon. The project will bring learning opportunities closer to people through community-inspired projects and new ways of connecting. NU will provide alternative routes into higher education. It will support civic engagement through signposting and an awareness of voluntary programmes and the work of community organisations, create easier access to coaching and mentoring; having an open door policy.

NU will focus on developing the confidence of people in their communities by acting as a hub of local social networks. It will facilitate interaction helping people to identify their potential and enable people to work together in new ways. Mike explained: “The idea of NU has been positively received by residents. It is intended to energise the most talented, as well as the most disadvantaged in a way that will bring maximum benefit to both.”

A second element is ’40 over 40 Programme’ which will provide targeted support to 40 women over 40 years of age each year. Mike explained: “Women over 40 offer a source of amazing resource that is, on the whole, underused. Whether it’s through caring responsibilities or career breaks this demographic is often left behind. The ’40 over 40’ project will offer a highly personalised programme that meets the specific needs, preferences and aspirations of women from this age group. It will help rebuild social networks or boost perceived self-worth and confidence.” 

Finally, a ‘Get Creative Programme’ which will use arts as a conduit to build social relations and reach within and across communities. Working with the University’s School of Art and Design and existing partners the programme will organise large-scale events so that local people can interact with and through the arts.

The Initiative is already actively supporting actions through sport for young people, and the campaign to designate Coventry as an ‘age-friendly’ city. 

Mike continued: “Our key outcome for the project as a whole is for Coventry and its people to view the University as an integral and important part of its future success. The programme is designed to be as inclusive as possible and bring people together. Over the first 3-years the project plans to engage with up to 20% of the city’s population or 60,000.

“We want the Initiative, through collaborative action, to challenge the current social, economical and political reality and create the society that ordinary peopledeserve, through the lens of a resourceful, accessible and involved modern University.” 

Mike added “We have a big ambition; the complex, entrenched, and interconnected opportunities and challenges in Coventry are too often addressed in a short-term or fragmented way. We need a comprehensive and interconnected series of interventions. A more holistic and large-scale transformation needs to take place, and Coventry University must step up and play its part.”