Our latest blog has been provided by Sophie Cloutterbuck who is Director of London Engagement at London Met. Working with the Vice-Chancellor on the Giving Back to the City stream of the University’s strategy, Sophie leads the University’s flagship civic and community engagement initiative, the London Met Lab: Empowering London. Working with colleagues from across the University and the wider community to ensure London Met fulfils its role as a civic institution while also giving students opportunities to become value-driven leaders.
Universities play an important role globally, through the impact of their research, teaching, training and developing the next generation of leaders, workers and thinkers. They are also of vital importance to their local areas; their economic growth, their cultural infrastructure and their social relations. While the outdated ‘town and gown’ cliché supposes a separation between higher education institutions and the places in which they reside, more and more universities are choosing to proactively foster student engagement with local people and initiatives.
This has manifold benefits.
It’s good for universities, who can demonstrate the value they bring to national and local life through their work to new audiences in exchange for the public money received from the taxpayer. As Lord Kerslake argued in the UPP’s Truly Civic report that, “while universities are vital to their places, they also need the active support of their communities in these turbulent and challenging times. Put simply, they need all the friends that they can get. This support needs to go further than a vague understanding of their general value.”
It’s good for local areas, both in the immediate term, in the development of new local projects designed to serve their communities, and in the future. Student engagement with their local areas can be a powerful force to motivate them to stay there when they graduate, ensuring the area can benefit from an engaged, enthusiastic population.
And of course, it’s empowering for the students, who can explore different skills and roles and find they thrive in them, and leave their studies driven by values they’ve cultivated through their engagement work. For some, it can take them out of a student ‘bubble,’ enabling them to experience the different ways people live and work, perhaps exposing them to careers they previously hadn’t considered or known about.
The London Met Lab was launched in 2020 to tackle the inequalities facing London, to improve people’s lives and to deliver social justice. We firmly believe that students are a vital component of a civic university and to practicing meaningful civic engagement in our communities. As part of the Lab, students are able to take a practical, work-based module which takes them out into the local community to undertake a project with a local charity, council, social enterprise or small business.
Selina Anderson, an Education and Social Policy student at London Met said she was inspired to choose this module as an opportunity to “give back to the community, to empower and inform individuals, be a voice and representative for those that often go unheard and to be an example of what you can achieve with the correct mindset and network.
“I think it’s important that students work with their local community to develop a real-world view of their surroundings while gaining skills, opportunities and experience that you can only get by being hands-on.”
One social enterprise which is working in partnership with the Lab and the Work Based Learning team, Better Safe Communities, currently has over 100 London Met students undertaking placements, working with experienced changemakers to help tackle some of the big issues facing London. The scheme sees the students offer digital training and support to small charities and start-ups in the London boroughs of Tower Hamlets, Hackney and Newham, some of the most deprived areas of the city, with a particular focus on training for ex-offenders, young school leavers and adults without qualifications. The students offer their skills and expertise in a variety of areas including translation, graphic design, research, social media, web design, legal administration and app creation, while developing the skills of the partners they are working with.
Sarah Haid, Director of Better Safe Communities, said: “My experience of working with London Met students has been amazing. Every time I work with them, they seem to have the right way of responding to the needs and voices of the community settings. They are instilled with the sense of collaboration and desire to make a social change.
“I always have the sense that this sense of community support and compassion must come from the Vice Chancellor, who I haven’t met, but I have heard she is eager to see students gain a better understanding of local social needs and how this can influence the work of the university. This vision is so admirable and transformational and it will only bring the respect of the local communities who are suffering the most.
“With the current suffering of local enterprises, the demand for technical support from students from all academic streams is very high. Working with the students is just a breath of fresh air. They come ready to learn and they are always willing to improve and be guided – and that is just what we like to see. They are so willing to learn.”
Sophie Cloutterbuck is Director of London Engagement at London Metropolitan University