The 3-legged stool: Student energy to fuel People Powered Change

James Derounian, principal lecturer at the University of Gloucester, looks at the potential for university-based initiatives to support the Big Lottery Fund’s ideas for People Powered Change – reporting from a conference this week on community engagement.
The National Co-ordinating Centre for Public Engagement(NCCPE) looks after six ‘beacons’ – these university-based collaborative centres dotted around England, Wales & Scotland – “are at the forefront of efforts to change the culture in universities, assisting staff and students to engage with the public. Their partners include further education colleges, museums, galleries, businesses, charities, TV and press, and public bodies.” Here’s the link.
29-30 November the NCCPE staged a sparky Bristol-based conference, Engage 2011: Making an impact. Delegates had the opportunity to “explore effective models for engaging with the public and ways universities and research institutes can support staff, students and the public to engage in mutually beneficial ways.” The four conference themes covered

  1. Making an impact with research
  2. Creating an engagement culture
  3. Effective partnerships and
  4. Engaging students

Our own session, The three legged stool: academic-staff-community dialogue in community based learning, was fittingly a joint presentation between a lecturer, the chief officer of a community-based regeneration charity (that has hosted student ‘placements’) and the University of Gloucestershire’s SU Welfare Officer.
The conference and work of the National Co-ordinating centre chimes with People Powered Change (PPC), in a number of ways: In terms of trusting “people to tell their own stories”; in this case contributions centred on higher education in support of PPC. Colleagues from the University of Nottingham, for example, reviewed their research links with the third sector & social enterprises through case studies and discussed their approach to evaluating community benefit, as well as the gains for students/university. An interactive workshop with young people from Barnardo’s Cymru sought a better understanding of the two-way process required in community engagement, so that it is a genuinely mutual learning experience.
The importance of language was emphasised at the conference, so delegate packs included Jargon Bingo (“Cross off the jargon if you hear it mentioned without explanation. First full house…wins an on the spot prize1”). What was also refreshing was the fact that a good third of delegates were employers, with the other two-thirds, academics and students.
A young audience enjoying University College London’s (UCL)‘Bright Club’, where researchers perform stand-up comedy about their work: source
A session on social media and public engagement asked whether this represented evolution or revolution. There then followed a fascinating discussion about the professional and personal uses and pitfalls of twitter & Facebook. Similarly confidentiality, tone, respect and online manners all reared their head. The London School of Economics, for example, has published a ‘twitter guide’ for researchers and staff
The University of Gloucestershire presenters highlighted work by American researchers, DeLind and Link (2004), who contend that “daily life is not a backdrop to education, but education itself…students need to carefully and critically examine what exists under their feet and outside their front (and back) doors.” In an age of reducing our carbon footprint, pursuing sustainability and of financial austerity, this sentiment of understanding our immediate surrounds becomes even more pressing.
A highlight was Fiona Reynolds’ presentation about her decade as National Trust Director General; this rounded off day 1. She described how the organisation that she inherited elicited a cool public response: “respect, admiration….but not warmth”. She was particularly pleased to have empowered staff by going local – giving each property team “authority for what they do, and how they do it”. And in an echo of community development and people Powered Change she intends that “everyone who comes across us is touched and inspired”.
The conference also offered a new angle on the Innovation Unit’s emphasis on “using the power of innovation to solve social challenges”. My own idea to fuel innovation and People Powered Change is a simple one, which I believe could produce profound and massive benefits for communities, climate change remediation and sustainable development: I am keen for the UK Government to consider an extension of to the National Citizen Service NCS (already in place for 2ndry school pupils): to pilot a BigGreenGapYear (of 6 months duration) which would enable young people to contribute to communities & Big Society activities.
Those undertaking Gap Service would gain an educational credit (of say £3,500/head) – as a contribution towards their first year university/college tuition fees. My idea chimes with similar suggestions e.g. David Blunkett MP’s National Volunteer Programme and Prince Charles’ suggestion that “a young person deferring a place to spend four or six months volunteering might be able to get some credits toward tuition fees” (speech dated 29 May 2006). Furthermore, this possibility links to the ‘Giving’ Green Paper points re “exchange”, “reciprocity” and moving “away from a caricature of giving as a one-way street”. The BigGreenGapYear is elaborated in my 2011 article for the Guardian online

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