Jock's Backroom Blog

Views from the Backroom, and the Classroom, at Oxford Brookes University

Universities and the Big Society

Posted by Jock Coats on May 21st, 2010

Whatever else happens under this new government, we can be sure that they will pursue the Conservative manifesto idea of the “Big Society”.  Even if it was only first unleashed on an unsuspecting electorate two months ago, and not terribly well explained at that, it was seen by the Conservative leadership at east as a key priority in their redistribution of power away from Westminster and other government institutions and into the hands of free acting groups in neighbourhoods and communities.

I have written elsewhere of how sceptical I am about both the “Big Society” as a political policy and of the “Big Society Network” mega-mutual that underpins the idea, and about the place of mutuals in delivering on state set policy priorities.  But whether we like it or not, it is likely to become increasingly prominent in both political discourse and in the ways they seek to deliver what are currently public services and build capacity in our communities to take on more home-grown projects.

So I have been thinking about what it might mean for universities in general and for Brookes in particular.  There’s an early Cabinet Office briefing paper on the Big Society (a .pdf file) idea available on their website:

We want to give citizens, communities and local government the power and information they need to come together, solve the problems they face and build the Britain they want. We want society – the families, networks, neighbourhoods and communities that form the fabric of so much of our everyday lives – to be bigger and stronger than ever before. Only when people and communities are given more power and take more responsibility can we achieve fairness and opportunity for all.

This is all very motherhood and apple pie stuff.  Governments for decades have talked about giving away power.  One wonders whether the idea that what might turn out to be the “local busybody” is merely a way of doing what the state does through local amateurs whose job will effectively be as lay agents of the state in every street, “nudging” local people in the direction the great big network suggests they should.  And so it is surely incumbent on those of us who believe otherwise – believe that social action is about seizing power from the state, not about delivering state set policies – to try to ensure that the outcome is not a lot of petty local tyrannies of the “usual suspects”.

So why do I think universities have a part to play in all this.  Well, we are, after all, social enterprises in our own right.  Multi-disciplinary social enterprises both at an academic level and because we have support functions that could be of use to a plethora of little local social enterprises who may lack the capacity for running back office functions such as finance, human resources and IT and marketing services.  We are not government, but are usually prominent, leading economic actors in our communities.  And of course, in many cases, we actually teach many of the skills and disciplines community groups will need.  And we have often underused facilities, especially at times, such as evenings, when these community enterprises will want to use them.

We are, as with Brookes, sometimes seen as imposing ourselves in some way on the communities within which we operate, but are often essential to the economic success of those areas even if our neighbours do not always appreciate that.  So it is good “PR” to be offering our services and facilities to this new breed of community project.

If, as with Brookes, we are also in the business of teaching the professionals that are then engaged in public sector delivery, such as health and education professionals, we will be affected – how will our teacher training offer for example need to evolve to cater for the “free schools” where curriculum and pedagogical style may be set less by the whitehall department and more by local sentiment and the opinions of those parent groups running those schools?  And, on the other side of that same coin, how can our academic professionals assist in the running of these services when they are devolved, in a similar way to our sponsorship of the Oxford Academy.

Our 2020 strategy, quoting John Henry Brookes himself says we aim to “graduate students to lead lives of consequence” and as part of that we are developing a set of “graduate attributes” over and above the academic requirements of their courses that we hope will set them apart when approaching employers.  But a constant theme amongst some of our local detractors in particular is that they are not committed to the community they are a part of while they are at university, with such phrases as “temporary residents” used disparagingly about students, especially those living out in private accommodation.

From the day they arrive at university; no, perhaps even from the day they choose this university as their preferred university, our students become a part of our, and therefore our neighbouring, communities.  If the future of leadership and political action is to be through participation in locally devolved enterprises, then we should seek to get them involved in these form the start.  This means active community building in halls of residence both to impart community organising skills to them as soon as they arrive, but also as evidence that the university takes this aspect of its students’ commitment to Oxford seriously.

Some of you will know that I have long harboured the notion that as probably the biggest “social enterprise” is any one area, universities are the natural home for social enterprise hubs for their region/sub-region/county.  At a time of austerity in public sector budgets too this could help us keep our income up, especially in non-teaching services where we could perhaps develop a bureau service to assist these new ventures with management functions leaving them to get on with delivering their aims.  The biggest point of failure and the biggest gripe of both SMEs and social enterprise is the back office stuff, the compliance with regulations, tax and PAYE systems, HR requirements and so on.  We could operate such a bureau on a “break even” basis for members of a social enterprise hub and on a for profit basis for local SMEs.

Such involvement could also help to establish our “impact” – if our research and innovation and our academics conducting such are able to use their new knowledge directly to benefit community action, increasing perhaps the community competitiveness of Oxfordshire as against other areas centred on other universities our academic standing is enhanced too.

There are certainly lots of possible opportunities to be grasped in this new localisation agenda; things that I think are better focussed on non-governmental institutions, and to me, it seems a “no brainer” that the “local university” fits the bill admirably.

Just as a final thought though, here’s one of the bullet points from the Cabinet Office document that really interests me:

We will give public sector workers a new right to form employee-owned co-operatives and bid to take over the services they deliver. This will empower millions of public sector workers to become their own boss and help them to deliver better services.

Ten years ago, when we were developing our last university strategy I submitted a paper to the then Vice-Chancellor Graham Upton and to the Academic Board, entitled a “Manifesto for a Mutual University” which envisaged the university arranged as a series of primary and secondary co-operatives.  Maybe that idea was only a decade early!

One Response to “Universities and the Big Society”

  1. Universities and the "Big Society" | Jock's Place Says:

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