Do university staff see themselves as agents of change? This was the astute question posed by a facilitator in one of the National Civic Impact Accelerator’s recent action learning groups. It was a question that arose, too, at a conference last month where I was invited to deliver a keynote on universities’ civic impact.
UHasselt is a modern university in a modestly sized Flanders town, at the heart of the former coal-mining region of Limburg. Walking around its streets full of Christmas lights and busy restaurants in mid-December, you might think of a university’s civic role as little more than one of channelling students into good jobs and creating business opportunities in deindustrialising towns.
Panorama of Hasselt, Belgium.
To mark its 50th anniversary, UHasselt staged a conference on ‘higher education with impact’. It covered everything from how to improve practice on race equality to how to train students for jobs that don’t yet exist. The university has a strong civic tradition as a university for its region, and its transformative potential is materially visible in the way a former prison has been repurposed as a centre for learning.
Amid the conference buzz there was a more sombre subtext. Delegates from Flanders and the Netherlands were mindful of the recent election success of the Dutch anti-immigration PVV party led by Geert Wilders. More broadly, they expressed a concern at the rise of conspiracy theories and extremist ideologies, and a worry that universities are failing to instil the critical thinking required among their students to judge between fact and fiction and to counter the simplistic stories offered by populist politics.
Street Art in Hasselt
Such worries heighten the need to think critically, too, about a university’s civic role. Higher education institutions, like other organisations, tend to focus more on institutional survival than on their moral obligations to society. Yet if universities cannot equip their students to be discerning citizens, and if they fail to act as discerning corporate citizens themselves, one might question the value of their ‘civic’ rhetoric.
So a university’s civic role needs to be able to stretch from the routine – how does the institution build partnerships with local leaders and benefit its locality through activities such as procurement or building design – to a vision of what a good society looks like and a determination to act ethically. In the words of John Goddard, there’s a moral obligation as well as an economic imperative.
To be civic, as some of the conversations in Hasselt began to suggest, is to be outward-looking: to address injustices and inequalities as well as preparing people for jobs and careers. That outward-looking stance will look different from place to place, which is why we’ve developed a Civic Impact Framework that encourages universities to ask those ‘what if?’ questions about their own localities and organisations.
We can already see from the conversations generated within the NCIA project that there are challenges of complexity and uncertainty. It’s one thing to wave a banner declaring a university to be civic; it’s another to work with partners over time to draw up a civic university agreement; and it’s yet another thing to turn that agreement into meaningful action, driven by shared goals and resourced for the long term.
In my talk at UHasselt I raised the question of whether universities, in the way they currently frame their civic mission, can meet the civic needs of their localities – the need to address social and economic inequalities, adapt to climate change, and build inclusive and critical citizenship and participation. In doing so universities will have to address questions some consider controversial. Some will argue that higher education institutions should just keep their heads down and concentrate on delivering education.
But for university staff and leaders who see themselves, however modestly, as agents of change, there are opportunities to be taken.
As a way of putting universities’ civic rhetoric to the test, I suggested a small tweak to the traditional ritual of graduation ceremonies.
Let’s imagine a graduation ceremony not long from now. As well as the procession of students receiving their degrees, we can see a few people who haven’t recently completed a course of study. Instead, they have been selected by their non-academic peers and partners in their local community to receive awards for the civic difference they are making: for their engaged scholarship, their ability to build bridges and relationships, for the investment of their time and knowledge and energy in their locality for the wider public good – and, in the context of contemporary populism, for their ability to challenge stories and practices that blame and exclude.
If we included such civic awards in every graduation ceremony, what would it tell our students, our staff and our local partners about the relevance of our institutions, complete with their robes and funny hats, to the cities and towns they inhabit? What if we started thinking about graduation as a corporate rite of passage for the university, where the university itself is recognised for what it has learned from its wider community and what it has contributed to it?
Poster about Hasselt University’s civic work