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Session feedback

With populism on the rise worldwide, universities have often found themselves labelled as “ivory towers”. Panellists talked about the initiatives they’d used to bridge the gap with their communities, and what universities needed to do to be more inclusive. What did attendees think about the issue?

Jake Broadhurst, Head of Global Projects, University of Edinburgh, UK

“We as universities could certainly have a stronger connection with people who are disadvantaged. The sector could do more to listen to parts of society who feel outside of our sphere of influence. It’s important that we learn which communities don't feel they have a stake in Higher Education, and why not. We need to understand what their motivations, fears and concerns are - and how we can reinvent services to include people who feel excluded.

“The panellists made a good attempt at encapsulating the position on why this divide is amplified today. The idea from the Netherlands about inviting citizens to propose research questions was very good, and I plan to take that home. One important thing mentioned was the idea of being “translocal”, and thinking about that as a way of engaging with communities where we work, and reconnecting with communities and people on their terms.”

Brad Farnsworth, Vice President, American Council on Education, USA

“Retaining trust with our stakeholders is a global challenge. We can certainly benefit from a broader conversation. 

“I think that - in the USA - the election of 2016 really highlighted a declining public confidence in all types of institutions. But what it did was expose frustration which has always been there.

“A lot of institutions have not thought about this strategically, and focused on defining their stakeholders and the most effective messaging. A lot of it is about communication and thinking strategically and a lot of institutions are just now beginning to think about this. There's another conversation about whose responsibility it is. There are those who might say it's the Ministry of Education's problem, but I think in the US it's a little different. The institutions are so independent that the presidents of our colleges understand they have a responsibility to demonstrate their value to the public.”

Rachael Criso, Director of University Partnerships, Virtual internships, UK

“There's a growing awareness that universities need to engage with much more passion and openness with local communities, to get the buy-in for the public spending that goes to them.

“The speakers were saying we need to break the stereotype of universities being an elitist place for the chosen few. Janet Beer hit the nail on the head when she said the communities don't often realise the huge role that universities play in communities, and we need to shout that from the rooftops. Philip Rogers mentioned in a study that education is seen as accessible but not affordable, and there was a good discussion on how we might counteract that. There was also a lot of discussion about diversity, equity and inclusion and how lower socioeconomic groups should be helped in their quest to attend university.” 

Session synopsis

In light of rising populism around the world, universities have been viewed as the "liberal elite" and as "ivory towers". Distrust between universities and local communities has never been higher, but there is mutual benefit to be gained from better working with local communities and including them in knowledge production. The session will be largely based around looking at the role universities could have in addressing the causes of the rise in populism across Europe and America by strengthening engagement with the public and local communities. By firstly providing context for the political situations in the UK and America, the session will then draw from the experiences and approaches of  European rectors' conferences to look at ways in which universities can work with and learn from local communities to improve the broader political context we find ourselves in.

Following that analysis, an international panel will discuss in what ways universities can address these challenges, including a critical evaluation of universities' position in society and the change that is needed. The discussion will also include concrete steps universities can take to initiate these changes.

During the session, the following questions will be addressed:

  • Why are experts/government/the liberal elite so distrusted and what can we do about this?
  • Have our universities lost touch with the 'local'?
  • Increasing inequality and how can universities tackle this problem?