Covid has necessitated changes in our lives, forcing reconsideration of previously normalised individual and collective behaviours and the structures enabling and framing those behaviours. Some conditions prompting those changes have been acute, arising with the pandemic, and may disappear as we move out of it.

Yet some of those changes predate Covid and reflect underlying chronic conditions.

Exposed in particular is a previously unrecognised or understated vulnerability of our cities, notably the large-scale institutions and structures – such as hospitals, schools and shopping centres – grounded in a ‘big is beautiful’ approach. Driven by faith in economies of scale and critical mass, taken for granted is that what they deliver – e.g., healthcare, education and commercial exchange – is best achieved through large-scale structures. The pandemic has required or accelerated a shift away from such delivery, necessitating a leaner provision through alternative means, whether local, online or at our own doorstep.

It would be all too easy to assume we will return post-Covid to utilisation of these large-scale institutions and structures. But will that be the case?

London hospital - image courtesy of Shutterstock
Drake Circus

Covid has highlighted both the vulnerability of the large scale and the advantages of small-scale action, which can be more direct, quicker and personal. This possibility is, however, something known pre-Covid. The healthcare sector has increasingly been moving towards this with a hub-and-spoke model with outreach centres in local communities, possibly aligned with other community and social services. Perhaps more notable is the British military, a tradition-minded institution if there ever was one, which has, since the Falklands War, recognised the vulnerability of its inherited emphasis on large-scale action and increasingly moved towards an internal structure defined by agility and small-scale, more pointed interventions, particularly in humanitarian efforts. Central to this approach is acting at critical locations, recognising such moves can reverberate and impact on a wider scale.

Oxford University Quadrangle
A insular quadrangle typical of medieval universities.

Academia has arrived at a similar juncture; its reliance on the large-scale presence of the academy has exposed a vulnerability, with online and blended learning stepping in to fill the void resulting from necessary responses to the pandemic. Yet these moves did not originate with the pandemic, and a process of change initiated pre-Covid has been accelerated by it. As borne out by various academic global surveys, online and blended learning is here to stay.

This is not to say that the academy as a site of learning is dead; those same surveys testify to the role face-to-face interaction plays in highly important informal learning and students’ socialisation into their chosen discipline and wider society.

The question is do we need the inherited structure of the academy to achieve this?

The concept of the academy was initiated with the formation of the first universities in cathedral and monastic schools during the Middle Ages. Stemming from this origin, we have inherited an institution historically defined by its introversion epistemologically, ontologically and spatially. More recent conceptualisations position the university in a more co-joined relationship with the wider world, reflected in writer Adrienne Rich’s proposition of a ‘university without walls.’ Other suggested names include the edgeless university, the community campus, and community hub.

Whatever the name, envisioned is an academic praxis in a dialogic relationship with the community.
To this dialogue the university brings its learned insights, rigour and underlying theory, as well as students and staff increasingly eager for such opportunity; simultaneously the community brings its own energy and knowledge gained through everyday experience.

Intrinsic to this praxis is its embedding in cross-disciplinary collaboration within the university and with external partners. Equally central to this reimagined praxis is its positioning directly within the communities with which it is working, located in community hubs or campuses that offer a co-authored and shared space of learning, empowerment and exchange. Our city centres offer one such focal point for intervention; once the locus of retail and commercial activity, the future life of city centres is envisioned as a multivalent space embracing a rich mix of cultural, educational, and healthcare agendas.

Afforded by this approach are a multitude of benefits, including providing innovative, interdisciplinary education, generating insightful research that expands knowledge across disciplinary fields and contributing leadership and meaningful support to the city. Thinking on this agenda has to date been advanced by the Urban Dialogues Network (with support from the Arts Institute), connecting with the successful work of colleagues from a diverse range of disciplines and equally with external partners. Further thinking is being enabled through the support of the Centre for Sustainable Futures, Institute of Education and the Faculty of Arts, Humanities and Business’ Knowledge Exchange team, The Bridge.

Underpinning this work is the University’s ethos of being a civic university and its aspiration to develop graduates and knowledge that can make a difference, advancing our disciplines while simultaneously contributing to the betterment of society, culture, the economy and the environment.

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The Bridge – driving knowledge exchange initiatives for the Faculty of Arts, Humanities and Business

The Bridge team works as the interface between the faculty and the outside world, and focuses on maximising the value and outcomes from interactions.

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