At the Universities Engage Conference in Bristol on Wednesday, delegates met from universities around the country to discuss ‘public enagement’ work. At a Comix event organised by Erinma Ochu, a very creative woman heading up the Manchester Beacons Project, Carolyn Kagan (Man Met) used the metaphor of the ‘Edge’ to convey the space,place and experience of those in HE attempting to connect to communities. My contribution was on transforming HE institutions and incentivising academic staff. While the conference was full, there was only a handful of research staff present – yet these are the very people who need to be able to communicate with the public more. Those academics working ‘on the edge’ in universities are not taken seriously by their colleagues and most universities now rely on full-time non-academic staff to do public engagement work. No matter how dynamic an ‘engagement programme’ if higher education remains inpenetrable and academic staff micro-managed, public engagement will remain marginal and universities less effective as civic leaders. Why? because closed- systems smother innovation.
In fact it feels like we are all ‘living on the edge’ at the moment.
Anxiety is spreading which is affecting everyone and their decisions. The press tend to fuel this anxiety by not exploring how we can reconnect local-living within a global trading environment. This week ‘Starbucks’ replaced a good cafe in the university precinct by offering Blackwells a rent they couldn’t refuse. We are not carfeful enough to support local SMEs when considering value-for-money. There is a new edge between private corporations and local business- yet, too often public leaders are busy defending the public sector and not interested in their own business sector.
Political commentators are obsessed with reducing the public sector and public sector reform, when what we need is a reform of economic and international financial systems. The government cannot expect people to ‘trust’ them when their understanding of how to build recovery and resilience is so weak. Public sector reform is only part of a much bigger problem of global financial systems that only value ‘the bottom-line’. Whilst I know little about company law – I feel we could emulate the Victorians more in their innovations in company governance arrangements which value social return. A combination of complacency and lack of innovation is resulting in government shying away from making radical changes in boardroom-decision-making.
One compensation is that there is a growing recognition that professional, working people and the under-employed are suffering and this is lessening a sense of common of inequalities and bringing people together again- after 20 years of competitive individualism: but this is not a subsitute for debate on how to develop more sustainable systems and not assume that ‘out of chaos’ a new, better society will just emerge.
My gloom stems from the lack of the discusssion about how to regear the market economy away from serving the corporate giants (mobile money, people and assets) towards exploring how global and national financial systems could value public infrastructure, governance and social assets – there has to be more that can be done to influence the way company boardrooms operate. The current economic system is not sustainable even for Germany – so where is the national and international leadership posing more challenging questions.
People are much more likely to agree to pension reductions etc, if they can see that social inequalities are being addressed through systemic changes rather than be left to a new version of Victorian philanthropy.