By Alina Congreve (University of Hertfordshire)
When I started work at Reading University, I took over the urban regeneration module that urgently needed refreshing. Coursework involved students writing essays to answer questions such as ‘Shall we build the channel tunnel rail link?’. The course was run twice with quite small numbers, in one term for third-year undergraduate students and in the other for MSc students. Most of the students who selected the option did so because it had a reputation for being easy. I took a decisions to run the module once and run it well, combining the third-year and MSc groups.
In trying to design new, engaging coursework I set up a meeting with the head of regeneration at the Borough Council. After a very shaky start to our meeting he mentioned two projects that he was thinking of paying commercial consultants to do with a budget of about £30,000. I offered to do them both for £7,000 with my students. The projects involved students working in two low-income neighbourhoods, collecting information and ideas from local residents to support neighbourhood plans. Once someone is paying you for work you have to do it, so I used the money to pay a regeneration practitioner to mentor the students. They were expected to complete stages of work by set milestones and the regeneration practitioner met with them several times as they reported back on progress.
Community facilities at Amersham Road
The students worked in teams and when in the community they were always in groups of two or more. Within their teams they had their own specific brief, to minimize the risk of a student free riding on others efforts. Students liked the combination of team-work and individual effort being rewarded. They learnt a lot about young people in those neighbourhoods who had very different experiences from them, including those who had turned down training and apprenticeship because their family needed them to earn money. They ran focus groups, talking to older people who travelled into the city centre to get groceries because they were intimidated at their local shopping parade with fears about their safety.
The students identified the way youth provision did not cater for 8-12 year olds, leading to them being drawn into trouble at an early age. They also provided innovative solutions and came up with fresh ideas to draw in private sector support. They approached large Reading based employers based in the town and suggested schemes where staff working in IT could volunteer one day a month to help older residents improve their skills. They also suggested improved timings to local bus services so residents were not so cut off from employment. These were were taken up by the bus operator. Students presented their findings at the end of the module to the Council and community representatives.
Starting at Hertfordshire with a new MSc planning course, only a small number of students signed up to the regeneration optional module. Concerned the group was too small for the students to have a good learning experience, I approached a colleague who ran the Tourism and Hospitality Management MSc After some discussion she allowed the regeneration module as an option on her programme. It took time to build up contacts and networks that I had developed at Reading. Hatfield has been subject to an excessive number of student projects that have added little value to the problems of the town. Looking a bit further afield I heard about the work of Luton Culture, a third sector organization that runs that arts, museums and community facilities. In the town centre an arts venue, the library theatre, had been almost unused for 18 months. There were ambitious plans to re-open the venue with a lively programme of theatre, comedy and music. There were a number of ideas Luton Culture staff would like to explore, but were stretched for time. These included: creating links between users of the library and the theatre; introducing a loyalty card; working with schools; and creating a volunteering programme for young people. The students carried out desk research and contacted other arts venues by phone and email. Whilst half the lecture content was delivered by a regeneration practitioner and half by me, there was no budget this time for practitioner mentoring. With the smaller group (15 students) this was feasible but it would be much more challenging with two or three times that number.
A key feature to the success of both projects was the commitment and support of staff at Reading Borough Council and Luton Culture. They were able to provide information, contacts and other practical support, such as local venues for meetings, that meant the students could get off to a quick start. They also provided an enthusiastic audience for the students work, ensuring that their first experience of delivering work to a client was a positive one.
So, was is the benefit for the University? Or to put it another way, how can you persuade your head of department you should be spending time on this? A key hook is positive local press coverage. In many university towns there is a lot of negative publicity about students, often focused on rowdy behavior and untidy front gardens. To have a story in the local media about students making a positive contribution to the town can start to change that. Some universities have community awards for students who make a significant contribution to the community, and winning or being shortlisted for awards is good for the department. Professional bodies are keen for both staff and students to be engaged with real world problems and this type of project can provide evidence of that engagement. From a personal point of view it can also help your own career development, engaging with senior figures in local government and giving interviews to the media.
So what are the challenges? Surprisingly, few come from the students. A few students are initially skeptical, but this can be largely overcome if you open the module in the right way. This is going to be challenging but it is going to be interesting and it will look great on your CV. One challenge is time pressure, and while English universities have professional staff whose role includes engagement or work placements, the scope varies widely. You will get very different levels of practical assistance depending on where you are. Local authority budget cuts have put pressure on funds and getting even small amounts of money to pay for additional support is more challenging than five years ago. The biggest barrier I currently face is the university ethics procedures. This can take 6-8 weeks for even a simple questionnaire or focus group with residents to be approved. As a result I have had to adapt so that the projects are carried out without the need for ethics approval. We still have quite a bit to learn in making these kind of projects a regular part of students learning rather than the exception.