“A university - and its students - are at the heart of any community”

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Whenever a picture editor has to find an image for a news item about universities, he or she tends to fall back on one of two basic options: there’s the picture of the ivy-covered walls of an ancient foundation – there really is nothing like a dome – or there is the picture of fresh young faces on graduation day in academic robes.

Often, the images are combined: young graduating students on lawns in front of ivy-covered walls. This is the way universities get

represented most often in news stories whether in old-fashioned print media or on the web. And it’s misleading. It creates an image about universities: that they are cut off from their communities, cloistered assemblies facing inwards.

Sheffield Hallam University makes the opposite point strongly: it is at the heart of its city and its region, open to the city, and open to innovation, new ideas and new practices, working closely with the city and the region.

There’s increasing interest in the idea of the university at the heart of its community. A major new investigation, funded by the UPP Foundation, has been launched looking into the civic role of universities. The Civic University Commission – which happens also to be chaired by Lord Kerslake, himself a former chief executive of Sheffield City Council, head of the Home Civil Service and, now, chair of the board of governors at Sheffield Hallam – is asking fundamental questions about how universities can best serve their region.

This week the commission arrives in Sheffield to hear evidence, and we will be taking the opportunity to tell them what we – and our partner, the University of Sheffield – do, and what we’d like to do more.

There are a number of examples from Sheffield Hallam. At the heart of any university are its students. Here’s just one example. Students on our International Events Management course work with local charities to raise funds and awareness as part of a Live Event module in the final year of their degree. The module is academically challenging and highly practical at the same time: it puts students into the community to fundraise for charitable causes at the same time as developing business, enterprise, professional and personal skills.

Over the last seven years, students taking the module have raised almost £200,000 for local charities; last year saw the highest annual total raised of over £41,000, supporting five local charities including The Sheffield Children’s Hospital, Cavendish Cancer Care, Sheffield Age UK, Roundabout and The Cathedral Archer Project. In the last year, our students collectively offered more than 10,000 hours of volunteering time to charitable and other projects across the city and region.

The university is, of course, also one of the largest employers in the city however, our staff reach out and take on responsibilities beyond their position at the university. There’s a major programme of work taking place across Sheffield Hallam to encourage and support the university’s staff to take on roles as school governors, offering time, training and development opportunities to engage in these essential roles in the educational ecosystem of the region. Staff from our finance and planning teams held a volunteering day at the Abbeydale Picture House last autumn, where our teams painted the auditorium floor, and undertook general clearing and cleaning. These are simply three examples but they tell what’s often a hidden story, about the university and its civic role: deep engagement with the city and the region, with the community and the things which make it tick.

Around the world, universities play an increasingly important role, as more and more people attend them. Participation rates in higher education are rising in Europe, Africa, South America and Asia. And that’s important in what is, increasingly, a knowledge economy, dependent on high levels of technical understanding and skill. As a result, universities are increasingly influencing the look, feel, layout of cities. But this cannot be a one-way process. Universities have to give as well as to take; they have to be anchor institutions for their communities and they have to engage their staff and their students in the community. The size, shape and influence of universities is a fact, but affection and identity has to be earnt. Being at the heart of your city is not just about geographical location – it’s about what you do and how you do it. This week we’ll be exploring that with the Civic University Commission. If we are really successful, perhaps those picture editors will start to use different images.