work in progress
Part of why as a project team we were drawn to this scoping study in the first place is our joint interest in and commitment to exploring the positive role that a university can play within its own region(s) – bearing in mind that at Nottingham we have the additional focus of our international campuses in China and Malaysia as well as our longstanding presence in the Midlands as an Higher Education Institution. Equally we are well aware from our own research and teaching engagements with external regional partners, in the theatre, in community arts programming and policy making more generally, and with the heritage and creative industries in their broadest sense, that the University gains hugely by working with and understanding its regional communities.
There has been a move in several arts and social sciences disciplines of late to be more explicit about articulating the applied and practice-based aspects of their work. A cynical reading of this would be to say this is a knee-jerk reaction to the employability agenda, a means to justify £9,000 tuition fees to anxious parents looking for the vocational aspect of any programme or the assurance of an income for their offspring at the end of three years full time undergraduate study. But, in truth, the ‘applied’ aspect of programmes like English or History, Theatre Studies have always been there. The encouragement through changes in funding policies and the new emphasis on impact and public engagement in the Arts Council as well as in HE funding contexts to work with external partners to create opportunities for placement and work-based learning has meant that many research-intensive universities are looking with fresh eyes at their surrounding communities and environments.
All of this connects back in interesting ways to the Delors ‘four pillars’ approach explained in another of our blogs and which advocates the following four strands of educational experience: learning to know, learning to do, learning to live together, learning to be. (1) It seems to us that engagement with the place, space and society with which we live cheek-by-jowl on a daily basis must be at the heart of a publicly funded university’s own attempts to know, do, be and live together.
We can see fellow Higher Education partners in the region thinking about similar ideas in equally creative and engaged ways; of particular note is De Montfort’s Square Mile project. Our own work has more recently been focused on work with community partners that engages with and makes capital of things like our site (the Raleigh project shared this year alone between Education, English, Engineering and History is a case in point; remembering in active ways as it sought to do the history of the University’s Jubilee campus as the former Raleigh factory and related buildings), our archives (work with the D. H. Lawrence Heritage Centre sits at the heart of this work), significant partners like our Academy School (the Nottingham University Samworth Academy which is located in the Bilborough area of the city). Several of the artistic partners in this project, not least Hanby and Barrett, have had engagement with or involvement in those projects and we would welcome a view from their end of what the engagement enables and fosters but also the challenges and tensions this kind of work represents.
In all of this there is an attempt to engage with and to a certain extent interrogate claims to theatre’s particular relationship with notions of citizenship, as explored in depth by David Wiles in his recent study on the topic.(2) Through research funding schemes such as the Arts and Humanities Research Council’s Collaborative Doctorate Awards programme we have students engaged in work-related learning and placement-type activity with a number of key heritage partners in the region including museums and theatre groups (including Brewhouse Yard, New Perspectives Theatre Company and the Nottingham Playhouse).
It becomes ever more central to these research and teaching based engagements which carry with them funding streams that we measure and account for their ‘impact’ but what does that mean and how and in what meaningful ways can that be achieved?
Are we helping students engaged in these kinds of projects to be better ‘citizens’? What does that mean in practice?
Is knowing your region better one positive outcome of participation in a community arts project and how is that knowledge constituted, achieved or performed?
(1) Jacques Delors, Learning: The treasure within (Paris: UNESCO, 1996).
(2) David Wiles, Theatre and Citizenship (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011). He calls citizenship ‘the preoccupation of the day’ in his introduction, p. 1.