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Reaching out beyond Brexit: community engagement at the University of Lincoln

Professor Toby Wilkinson

Deputy Vice-Chancellor
University of Lincoln
Lincoln

Photo: Matthew Feeney

In the 2016 EU referendum, the top two ‘Leave’-voting areas of the UK were in Lincolnshire (Boston with 75.6% supporting Leave, and South Holland with 73.6%). Even in the City of Lincoln, home to two universities and 15,000 students, the Leave vote was 56.9%.

As a sector, UK higher education has argued passionately for the benefits of EU membership – benefits for student mobility, staff recruitment, research excellence, and global competitiveness. It might be assumed, therefore, that a university located in a part of the country with a large majority of Leave voters would find it challenging to engage with its local communities. That has not been the experience of the University of Lincoln.

When I was asked recently about ‘Re-engaging with the vote-leave community’ I took issue with the question itself. First, I argued, if any university has left it until the end of 2018 to re-engage with its community, it is too little, too late.

Continuous dialogue with our community, and responsiveness to local and regional needs, are defining features of the University of Lincoln’s way of working.

The range of our engagement is captured in a recent publication, ‘The New Civic University’; but the underlying ethos goes back to our very foundation. The University of Lincoln was established by and for the people and businesses of Lincoln and Lincolnshire, and our civic responsibility is at the very core of our mission.

For example, we sponsor a multi-academy trust in one of the most disadvantaged areas of Lincolnshire (South Holland), helping to raise educational attainment, aspiration and progression to higher education. We work closely with the Local Enterprise Partnership, aligning our educational provision and research with regional industrial requirements; with local authorities to support growth, offering our expertise to facilitate their plans and ambitions; with the arts and cultural sectors regionally to ensure their sustainability. And the new Lincoln Medical School, which will welcome its first students in September 2019, is our response to the chronic challenges facing recruitment and retention of doctors across Lincolnshire.

In every sphere, partnerships are key: while many universities are ‘anchor institutions’ in their localities, we can only help to realise the aspirations of our communities by working with them, in a genuine dialogue.

This raises a second important issue. At the University of Lincoln, we don’t recognise the phrase ‘vote-leave community’: the citizens of our city and county are our community. (Moreover, universities themselves have a mix of Leave and Remain voters, and we have learned to respect each other’s perspectives.) Although Lincoln is a small city (130,000 people) with a significant student population, we work hard to eliminate barriers between ‘town’ and ‘gown’. Students sit on local residents’ associations and volunteer thousands of hours to local projects: clearing ditches, litter-picking, redecorating community facilities, befriending elderly residents, mentoring school pupils. The Students’ Union led a successful campaign to save a local drop-in health centre; its closure would have affected students and residents alike. Our Media Production students have filmed a series of interviews with residents in the city’s West End (which has one of the greatest concentrations of student accommodation): ‘Meet the Neighbours’ allows all members of the community to share experiences and establish common understanding.

Two initiatives in particular exemplify our innovative approach to community engagement. At the end of each academic year, when students leave the university, many – especially international students – find they don’t have space in their luggage for everything they’ve acquired during the course of the year. Rather than throw unwanted items away, this year students (and staff) donated them to the British Heart Foundation, raising £42,000 to support the charity’s work in Lincoln and Lincolnshire. At the other end of the year, over the festive season, international students who stay on campus can feel quite isolated, while the demands on charities rise sharply as winter bites. In response, international students at the University of Lincoln work as volunteers for the local Rotary Club. They provide much-needed extra support at a busy time of year, and help to build stronger connections with the local community.

International students, Leave voters: in Lincoln, we are all one community, finding new ways to work together to benefit our city and county.

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