What universities can learn from excellent libraries about public space

Universities willing to invest heavily in opening themselves to the public may find long-term rewards

Most people interested in the role of universities in society would, I think, agree on the following:

  1. Society as a whole benefits from universities and the contribution they make to research, education and local development.
  2. Universities benefit when they work closely with diverse groups of people: communities, businesses, international visitors.
  3. Therefore it makes sense for universities to be as ‘open’ as possible and to exist as spaces and places that make (1) and (2) possible.

Why, then, are many universities pretty poor at putting (3) into practice? There are some that do this well: in the UK, a university in the north east that chose to build a five-a-side football pitch on a piece of prime campus real estate, rather than financially lucrative labs or incubator space, to encourage local youth to play and become comfortable on campus. Or the university shaping its campus to provide a new short-cut from the train station to the city centre, and showing off the work of students and the facilities of the university for all those walking through. Internationally, I’ve written previously about Johns Hopkins in Baltimore, and Ryerson in Toronto.

But these are exceptions. Many university buildings – at least in the UK – are woefully under-utilised, and security concerns tend to trump openness and access. Tuition fees act as a wall, restricting access to university buildings to those who pay the fees. In contrast you can walk straight into and work within many of the excellent libraries in universities across Europe. Universities should be places for people to meet and ideas to flow, and they need to be open and welcoming environments. Fortunately there are models of excellence to learn from.

Helsinki’s Library Oodi


Last week I visited Helsinki’s new public library – a glistening 98m euro building near the Central Railway Station and spread over three floors. There were several thousand people within the building when I visited, but it didn’t feel crowded. The library’s website tells the story better than I could here, but there are some key points universities could learn from:

  • The library markets itself as a ‘living meeting place’ that is ‘open for all’, functioning as ‘a living room for residents’. It is truly open – no need to sign up, no turnstiles. As the Johns Hopkins example above showed, when you strip down the perimeter or facade you invite foot traffic and create a safer environment, but you also truly engage (signing up for a free membership may seem inclusive, but there are always parts of society who will be excluded by this).
  • As such, Oodi reimagines what a library should be for. There are still 100,000 books on the top floor, but the space has been designed from scratch to reflect today’s society. The second floor has an ‘urban workshop’ containing 3D printers, sewing machines, large format printers and computing equipment. There are also meeting and conference rooms, online gaming rooms – all available to the public. Anyone can pick a tablet up from the shelf. There’s a vast amount of comfortable seating – some in quiet zones, others resembling a co-working space. Freelancers, businesses, tourists, residents, students, families are all catered for. What would a university building that did this look like?
  • There’s a consultation area, where residents can look at models of city plans, view new developments with VR headsets, and provide feedback notes on a giant map of the city. And the building itself was designed with an emphasis on service design and user input.
  • The basics are all covered. There’s very fast internet (no login), long opening hours, a good restaurant and multiple coffee shops, accessibility, and (essential in Finland) a sauna. It’s big enough to never feel too busy.

 

One might argue that all this comes at a huge cost – and why give all this away for free (or why should universities provide such services, when state-run institutions such as libraries should do so). But there’s a real competitive advantage to be found from being the provider of such a space – the ideas that can be generated, connections made, and the long-term engagement with community that could help break down some of the barriers in society. It’s an investment in a place and people – a gift that pays interest in stronger relationships into the future.

There’s also a high degree of trust involved in completely opening doors to all (which I think the UK struggles with more than some of our European counterparts). What if crime skyrockets, or people decide they don’t want to pay for study when they can use facilities for free? Risks indeed, but my guess is the more people that flow through from all parts of society, the lower the crime. And the more people who see what such an institution can offer, the more they are willing to support it.

(Photos: Tuomas Uusheimo)

How to write an engagement strategy

What university strategies and a psychology experiment from the 1940s have in common

Writing an effective strategy for local engagement is difficult.

Read through the following statements, taken from a UK university’s strategic plan, and see if anything looks familiar:

As a vibrant knowledge hub, we have an important role to play both locally and globally. The university is a large employer and economic contributor in the region.

We aim to build a clear and distinctive reputation for excellence through strategic engagement and communication with our regional, national and international communities.

We will help the region address its challenges and opportunities while incorporating its many possibilities in education and research.

Could this be from your university’s strategic plan or external engagement strategy? I actually lied at the start: these statements aren’t from a single university. They’re a jumbled mix of statements from five universities from across the UK nations, and from various mission groups. But if they look familiar this could be a problem.

A Barnum effect?

Speaking at recent events, I’ve asked the audience – mostly of higher education professionals – whether these statements about engagement could be from their strategic plan. Nearly everyone raises their hand.

This reminds me, perhaps a little uncharitably, of the Barnum effect. Emerging from a series of psychological experiments in the 1940s, the effect involves showing participants – for example, a class of students – an individual personality statement based on a handwriting sample or a piece of written work. Statements include:

  • You have a great need for other people to like and admire you.
  • You have a tendency to be critical of yourself.
  • You have a great deal of unused capacity which you have not turned to your advantage.

Because the assessment statements are so vague, people interpret their own meaning, and the statements become personal to them. Nearly all participants believed their assessment to be uncannily accurate.

Engagement expectations

There is a growing expectation for universities to be regionally engaged, and this follows from a recognition of the role universities can play in their area and with local communities. The interest and enthusiasm around the Civic University Commission is evidence of this.

This local role isn’t new. Many universities have had engagement as a core part of their mission since their founding. But in recent years government has focused on the role of cities and regions in devolved policymaking, as well as the institutions, such as universities, that can help steer this.

As regional plans – from City Deals to Local Industrial Strategies – shape the policy environment university planners need to factor the issue of place more highly. Often, however, the result is strangely place-neutral: a series of engagement strategies and university planning documents that are largely indistinguishable from one another.

Place, positioning and partnerships

There are positives to be drawn from my (admittedly unscientific) scan of university engagement strategies. Many recognise how the local and international activities of universities reinforce each other. Universities are bridges for their towns, cities and regions to reach the world, and this offer to connect the local and the global is made loud and clear.

In my work for the British Council on universities and cities working together on internationalisation, I found that effective planning was built on a deep understanding of place, positioning and partnerships. It is long-term, deliberate and part of a wider vision of the future of the local area. Universities often have a clear sense of their positioning, but articulating this in the context of place and partnerships can be tricky.

University strategies are not the place to detail individual activities and actions. But a greater degree of specificity is often needed, and this is likely to mean dropping some of the broad statements to focus on a few areas of institutional strength, perhaps joining up with other local universities.

Rooting strategies in place, positioning and partnerships is a good start. The Civic University Commission’s progress report notes that measuring civic engagement is not widespread (but does highlight Cardiff University’s use of quantitative and qualitative analysis). Further work on this is also important.

A good incentive to write a long-term strategy (image credit)https://unsplash.com/photos/cKjxGyfNdQc
A good incentive to write a long-term strategy (image credit)

So too is taking a longer-term perspective. Many universities proudly promote their anchor presence in their area, but their plans are often on five or ten-year cycles. The city of Amsterdam has a 200-year strategy. Although this is prompted by climate change (as an official said, “we don’t want to just let the water flow and all have to move to Germany”), thinking about what a university strategy spanning one or two centuries may look like is perhaps a useful exercise.

A test when looking at your university engagement strategy: if you remove your institution’s name, and mix it up in a pot with other anonymised strategies, is it clear which strategy is yours?

This post first appeared on Wonkhe.

Main image credit

The six stages of engagement

Looking beyond the financial benefits of university engagement

Over the past couple of months I’ve given several presentations on university engagement in cities (slides below from a workshop in South Africa). One of the things I like to test with the audience is a sliding scale I’ve developed1 of why universities choose to engage with local communities, businesses and other organisations:

1. Financial incentives
2. Government push through policy (e.g. for knowledge transfer)
3. Branding; demonstrating social relevance
4. Enlightened self interest
5. Public/local/civic duty; (rediscovering) a historic mission
6. A strategic ‘urban turn’

The theory is that, over time, many universities have moved from point one – choosing to engage locally because of perceived or actual financial benefits – to point five – a sense that engagement is part of the duty of the institution. The route is rarely a straightforward journey through all five, and in the messy reality of day-to-day engagement many stages will look remarkably similar.

Between financial incentives and civic duty we have universities responding to government policy pushes (point two), described well by the likes of Rhiannon Pugh and colleagues regarding initiatives such as Growth Hubs in the UK.

Point three – engagement as a means to improving an institution’s branding and demonstrating social relevance – is often a scrambled response to universities coming under fire (usually from the press) for being societally irrelevant or out of touch.

Enlightened self interest, point four, is the recognition that the fortunes of a university are often closely intertwined with the health of its locality.

Point five is having civic duty at the heart of the university mission. This is garnering a lot of attention in the UK through the likes of the UPP Civic University Commission but, for many universities, is aspirational at present.

Point six I’ve written about extensively on this blog. It combines points one to five, and proposes that the relationship between universities and cities is evolving. For some universities, the city has become a greater strategic concern and opportunity. There is evidence of universities slowly undertaking an ‘inward’ or local turn, from nation to city – for example university leaders prioritising city trade delegations over national ones – and institutions looking to take advantage of the globalisation of urbanisation and responding to the narrative over the ‘rise of cities’ and their interconnectedness. At the same time, universities themselves become vehicles for cities to achieve their goals – but I’ll save this for another post.

Locating the Urban University slides

Finding Dan | Dan Grinwis


  1. With many influences, who shouldn’t be held accountable for my findings. Much of this thinking was prompted by an article by van Schalkwyk & George de Lange (The engaged university and the specificity of place: The case of Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University in the journal Development Southern Africa) and their call for ‘the delegitimisation of one form of university-community engagement that values exchange with external communities for the financial benefit of the university (and is tenuously linked to the core functions of the university) and the institutionalisation of a form of university-community engagement that values place-specific development (while simultaneously strengthening teaching and research).’ A second nod to the work of Jean-Paul Addie at Georgia State University (and convener of the Cape Town workshop) whose research on rethinking the urban university has been particularly influential.