A Civic University

Feature

The concept of the ‘Civic University’ is one that has been developing in higher education over the past year – with the considerable input and involvement of the University of Plymouth. From hosting round table discussions on how higher education institutions can better serve their communities, to showcasing areas of excellence to the Civic Universities Commission in London, Plymouth’s proud pedigree of working with and for its various communities is very much becoming a model for the future.

But what does it mean to be a civic university? How does that manifest across an institution as broad and varied as Plymouth? And who are the people that are making that happen? 

The volunteers

Plymouth students regularly deliver more than 25,000 hours of voluntary work and service each year. Much of this is coordinated by the UPSU Volunteering department, who last year alone introduced 18 new community partners for students to get involved with. 

But some students go above and beyond to make an impact in the local community – and final year BEd (Hons) Special Educational Needs student Abby Williams is truly an exemplar.

Before the first semester of 2018 had even been completed, Abby had logged more than 700 hours of volunteering across three different areas: supporting local Scouts and Guides groups; as a first-aider with St John’s Ambulance; and coordinating student-led volunteering within the Volunteering Society.

“I’ve been volunteering for as long as I can remember,” she says. “In fact, it is hard to say why I do it, because I always have done it! But it was only when I came to university that I realised there was a whole range of things I could do beyond supporting the Scouts.”

Initially Abby helped out with RELAYS, which offers a range of creative outreach activities and events for school pupils and young people, focused around sport, culture and education. And, having moved to Plymouth from Kent, she quickly began to help out with city-based Rainbows, Guides, Beavers and Cubs groups. Latterly, she has taken over the running of the Guide group at Crownhill, which has been in the city for 63 years. 

“You don’t realise how hard it is,” she admits. “The finances are probably the toughest bit! But we’re responsible for everything including all of the event organisation.”

For the past 18 months, Abby has also been a part of the selection process for the World Scout Jamboree in West Virginia, United States, in 2019. First, she was chosen as an assistant leader – a role that has required additional training – and then has been helping to select the scouts that will attend from across Devon. 

With graduation now firmly in sight, and a teaching career on the horizon, Abby is very much aware that her volunteering days could be numbered. 

“Everyone says to me that if you are a teacher, you won’t have the time for volunteering,” she says with a smile. “So that is why I am doing as much as I can now! And it has given me so many skills and so much confidence to take into the classroom.”

The fundraisers

Last year, University of Plymouth students raised more than a quarter of a million pounds for charitable causes. And by far the biggest contribution to that sum was from events orchestrated or supported by the student Raising and Giving (RAG) group.

Led by an elected student committee, the Plymouth RAG has been the spiritual home of fundraising for many years. “We have a proud history of raising significant sums of money for our chosen charities,” says current President Emily Haberfield, a final year undergraduate on the BSc (Hons) Geography. “We’re still quite small in terms of student awareness, but we’re really working hard to join up with other student groups and societies to raise that profile.”

Emily has been involved with fundraising since she was a teenager, and through her school had the opportunity to undertake charity trips to both Zambia and Tanzania. 

“Meeting the children that our money would be helping, really inspired me to do more,” Emily says, “And so naturally when I came to Plymouth, I wanted to find out what was available. And the first thing I saw was an advert to climb Mount Kilimanjaro, and that was such an inspiring thing to do.”

The trip to Kilimanjaro is one of the annual ‘adventures’ overseen by RAG, alongside the smaller, more traditional campus-based events such as jailbreaks and charity balls. This year, the team took on responsibility for six in total, and they attracted around 70 students, who each had to meet a fundraising target through their own events and efforts.

For example, any student wanting to go on either the Kilimanjaro, Machu Picchu, or Everest Base Camp adventures had to raise £3,300, which was split equally between covering the cost of their trip and a donation to the associated charity, Meningitis Research, Action Against Hunger, and Hope for Children respectively. Similarly, anyone choosing the East Africa adventure, supporting the East African Playgrounds charity, was required to raise £2,000, which contributed to the funding of a village playground that they themselves helped to build. 

“The adventures really help participants to develop their leadership and networking skills,” Emily says. “And the students also have the opportunity to go on an additional trip for a supplement, such as jungle trekking in Africa to see gorillas.”

With events management, illustration and web development students volunteering their time to help with RAG, and using their skills to organise events, the group is also making a valuable contribution to future graduate employability.

“There are so many students at Plymouth who give up their time,” adds Emily. “They contribute hours and hours so that they, and others, can fundraise. And it is incredibly rewarding to get people involved – to see them go from tentatively picking up a flyer to really caring about a particular cause is wonderful.”

The community lawyers

<p>The Community Lawyers<br></p>
<p>The Community Lawyers. Law clinic<br></p>
<p>The Community Lawyers<br></p>

More than a quarter of academics and professional services staff work collaboratively with local businesses, community or charity organisations in the course of their roles at the University.

The Law Clinic, part of the School of Law, Criminology and Government, does that and more – reaching out directly to members of the public to provide pro bono legal advice and support across family, employment, and welfare law, and refugee family reunion. 

Rosie Brennan, Associate Professor of Law, is Director of the Law Clinic and lead academic on the refugee family reunion work. She says: “There is a massive legal capacity gap in this city caused by cuts to legal aid. And this is creating serious issues for vulnerable members of society for whom even filling out forms can be a barrier to receiving assistance.”

All of the clinics sit once a week, receiving referrals from partner organisations such as the British Red Cross and the Racial Equality Council as well as people walking in off the street. Around 80 second and third year students, who elect to take the module, work in one of the clinics, supervised by an academic. 

“I wanted to do something practical,” says Jasmine Galvin, a third year LLB (Hons) Law student, who is part of the family law clinic. “And I am from Plymouth so the idea of being able to do something positive for my community had great value to me.” 

Third year students handle the face-to-face meetings, taking notes, offering guidance, and signposting people to further help. They will also follow cases, issue formal letters of advice, assist in applying for different forms of aid, and help clients prepare for employment tribunals.

“The breadth of what we do makes the clinics very attractive to a wide range of groups,” adds Rosie. “And it provides students with those clinical legal skills and experience of communicating directly with people.”

“The legal world can be very intimidating for some people,” adds Emily Unsworth, another final year LLB (Hons) Law student. “But I think they find it much easier to talk to students. We always give people the reassurance they need, and we do our best to explain things as simply as possible. And we then we can follow up with a much more detailed letter that they can use and refer to as their issue progresses.”

The clinics have been running for more than four years and in 2018, the project won 'Best Contribution by a Law School' at the annual LawWorks and Attorney General Student Pro Bono Awards, held at the House of Commons. Rosie says they are now building on their legacy by taking the student engagement work proactively out into the community, based upon a US-style ‘street law’ approach. With funding from the ESME Fairburn Foundation, administered by the Plymouth Octopus Project, this involves presenting to small groups and to organisations, explaining the legal system and some of the terminology.

Students are also involved in a teaching project, delivering sessions on international humanitarian law to Devonport High School for Girls. And furthermore, the Law School is working with colleagues in medicine and architecture on interdisciplinary community welfare initiatives, and has partnerships with Shelter and Citizens Advice. 

“The students are 100 per cent committed to these projects, and they bring enthusiasm and integrity to them,” Rosie says. “It’s a genuine collaboration between them and the academics.”

“It’s a learning experience for everyone involved” adds Jasmine. “There is never a day where you don’t learn something new.”


The cultural advisors

From the diverse public arts programme orchestrated by the Arts Institute, to the many graduates who choose to remain in the South West to pursue their careers in the creative industries, the University plays an important role in shaping the artistic and cultural landscape of the region. This is especially true for those academics whose expertise is called upon by external groups and partners.

Dr Kathryn Gray, Associate Professor of Early American Literature, has been advising the Mayflower 400 team at Plymouth City Council on its programme of events and activities that will commemorate the 400th anniversary of the sailing of the Mayflower, set to take place in 2020.

An expert in transatlantic literature and culture, Kathryn has researched and written about many of the key historical texts of the 17th and 18th Century, including Mourt’s Relation, which offers the first insight into the life of the Plymouth colonists who sailed on board the Mayflower on 1620. This has enabled her to offer a more nuanced perspective on the historical landmark, and therefore the anniversary itself.

“When we examine the narratives of the Plymouth colony settlers in detail, we can uncover far more interesting, challenging and difficult stories about colonial New England,” Kathryn says. “We have been able to rethink the more established idea of the Pilgrim Fathers fleeing from religious persecution and situate the Separatists in a more detailed set of Atlantic circumstances which shaped their experiences, and the experiences of the indigenous people with whom they interacted and settled alongside. The Mayflower voyage has an important place in the history of the United States, but it is also part of a much larger narrative of English and European exploration and colonisation. Within this larger narrative, it’s also important that we include, as far as possible, the experiences of Native American communities at the time, as well as their current perspectives, as we approach this anniversary year in 2020.”

Kathryn has been involved with the Mayflower project since meeting the US Ambassador and his cultural attaché in 2014 when they visited Plymouth. Since then, she has worked on a wide range of different projects, from providing input into educational resources and the City Council’s website to delivering training to the Mayflower Makers volunteer programme so that they have access to the wider historical context. 

In 2015, she launched the Mayflower Lecture Series with the ambition of supporting academic and public engagement events that focus on transatlantic literature and culture from the early modern period to the present day. They have proven to be a strong success and have featured award-winning Native American chef, food historian, and photographer Dr Lois Ellen Frank; Mary Nolan, Professor of History at New York University; and most recently Jack Davey, the former curator at the British Museum.

Kathryn is also working with Jo Loosemore, curator at The Box, the city’s under-development history centre, to help create an exhibition on the Mayflower for the grand opening. They were invited to share their vision for the exhibition to delegates of the National Archives annual conference in November 2018. 

“It is about providing contextual knowledge so that people understand that we’re not trying to create heroes or villains,” she says. “It is so much more interesting when you get into the detail and start exposing the myths.”

<p>Dr Kathryn Gray<br></p>
<p>Mayflower steps. Getty image&nbsp;</p>
<p>The Box&nbsp;<br></p>

The transport networkers

“To our many friends and colleagues, especially in ScotRail and Great Western Railway, who keep the transport system working day and night and welcome us into the real world whenever we venture out from the ivory tower.”

The foreword to Transport Matters, the soon-to-be-published book edited by Professor Jon Shaw (in collaboration with regular academic partner Professor Iain Docherty of the University of Glasgow), pays tribute to the spirit of collaboration that exists in the realm of transport research.

“Transport is hugely important for many different reasons, both academic and civic, and this new book is the epitome of the civic university approach,” says Jon, Associate Head of the School of Geography, Earth and Environmental Sciences. “And the aim of this book has been to group together the best ideas from scholars and practitioners as to how we might improve everyone’s quality of life.”

It is calculated that University staff deliver more than 255,000 hours of voluntary public engagement and public service activity worth around £17.6 million each year. And Jon, an internationally respected academic in the realm of sustainable transport, has repeatedly delved into the geographical implications of mobility and accessibility in the context of transport, governance, and passenger experience. In the policy arena, he is a former special advisor to the government’s Transport Select Committee on the road network, and current member of the Plymouth Strategic Infrastructure Board. And he is also a member of GWR’s Stakeholder Advisory Board, and chairs the Scientific Advisory Board of econex verkehrsconsult in Germany.

“External engagement is incredibly important to me, and I will devote three-to-four days every month to trying to build connections between the University and the world of practice,” he says. “Because, if you want to generate impact beyond the sphere of the university, you either have to do it through teaching, and through the work of your alumni, or you do it yourself.”

And this has quite literally been the case with Jon’s ongoing project around smart ticketing. Undertaken in collaboration with Dr Andrew Seedhouse, this 4-star impact case study from the 2014 Research Excellence Framework has created a legacy that continues to grow with every passing year. Working alongside Jon, Andrew set up a company with the aim of replicating the kind of harmonious smart ticketing system offered by Oyster in London, but bringing together the different transport operators in the region. With the support of the Department of Transport, the company has expanded from pilot projects in Norfolk to directly processing ticket sales right across the country, including here in the South West. 

“It is a demonstration of how academic research can come together with the public and private sector to launch a project that has enormous impact, measured in the millions of pounds worth of ticket sales,” Jon adds. “We have brought together academics, government and practitioners to blaze a trail for smart ticketing outside of London.”

The community dentists

With the creation of the Peninsula Dental School in 2006, the University has been working to address health inequalities in the region, and in particular the issue of access to an NHS dentist. Undergraduate students learn their skills in four dental education facilities (DEF) – two in Plymouth, one in Exeter, and one in Truro – alongside specific community engagement projects.

Last year, students treated more than 5,300 patients under supervision, across 20,000 appointments. And qualified staff undertook a further 2,000 appointments for more complicated cases, such as restorative dentistry. Indeed, the Economic Impact Report unveiled in 2018 estimated that dental treatment delivered by staff contributed around £9.4 million in quality of life gains. 

Christina Worle, of the Peninsula Dental Social Enterprise ( PDSE), which oversees the University’s community-facing dentistry work, is one such member of staff making a huge impact upon the community and student experience as well. A graduate of the University’s dentistry degree from 2015, Christina had been working at a practice in Bristol when she applied for a role in the PDSE. She now works as a general dentist at the Devonport DEF, and supervises dental students, as well as stepping in to handle more complex cases. And, in addition to studying for her MSc Restorative Dentistry at the University, she runs a dedicated community clinic every Monday, focusing upon those people that are or have been homeless.

Christina says: “Many of the patients I see can have fairly complex lives, and they present with a full range of issues. Some haven’t been to a dentist for many years. Some have been heroin addicts and have been on methadone, which can be very sugary and cause severe tooth decay. Some patients have had long term dental pain, and others are missing teeth, and there isn’t a great deal of NHS provision for these patients in Plymouth.”

Many of Christina’s patients are referred via the Salvation Army and the Shekinah Mission, and the clinic is run in a way that strikes a balance between providing flexibility of appointment time while also ensuring that her time isn’t wasted if patients miss their slots. There is no deregistration penalty, but if patients continue to miss appointments, then Christina can work with a volunteer at the Well Connected charity to help patients attend their appointments. 

And Christina is very aware of the mental barriers many of her community patients face around dentistry and dental health.

“Some people are ashamed of their teeth and experience real self-esteem issues,” she says. “And that is hugely significant when someone is trying to move on with their life and maybe thinking about applying for jobs and attending interviews. Having those people skills is therefore really important, and being completely non-judgemental as well.”

And away from the more pressurised, target-driven environment of NHS dentistry, Christina says she is grateful for the 'blessing of time' that she has to work with these vulnerable members of the community.

“It is really rewarding to have the opportunity to help them,” she adds. “You can make a real difference as to how they see themselves and that is so important in moving forward with their lives.”