Why community engagement matters


Lesley McAra tells Teaching Matters about some recent examples of community engagement projects around the University…

The February meeting of Senate took as its theme – The University and the City: Partnering to Support Inclusion. During the packed meeting (standing room only!) and accompanying exhibition, students, staff and community partners showcased a range of inspiring civic engagement projects.

Here I highlight just a few examples:

The Hunter Square Project – students Vivien Ho, Lara Pedreschi and Emma Martin gave an overview of this multi-disciplinary design project aimed at tackling anti-social behaviour and promoting social inclusion in a city centre square.  The project was instigated in response to an approach from the City Council and the Police.  Students consulted local residents, businesses, Edinburgh World Heritage and users of the Square (including those committing the anti-social behaviour) and undertook desk-based research.   Their final designs were showcased to a range of stakeholders and a public exhibition was held in Minto House during which further feedback was elicited.  At the Senate the students highlighted the learning from the project, the value to them of group-work, the need for good organisational skills, and the benefits of working across different disciplines.  The University is now in discussions with Edinburgh World Heritage about implementing the student designs.

The Centre for Homeless and Inclusion Health  – Dr Fiona Cuthill gave an introduction to this new and exciting initiative.  Based in the NHS Access Practice and working with a range of community partners, this Centre will bring together academics from a range of disciplines across the University of Edinburgh (including inter alia medicine (primary care), nursing, veterinary medicine, social work, law, psychology, art and design, and education).  The aim of the Centre is to augment the services offered by the NHS Access Practice with the ultimate ambition of eliminating homelessness.  The Centre will develop a programme of research on what works in tackling the problems of homelessness and social exclusion; it will develop pathways for people who are experts by experience to contribute to research and teaching; and it will provide a community environment outwith the classroom to enhance student learning and develop skills for employment.  The first of the services to be delivered in the Centre is free legal advice:  under the leadership of Catriona Grant, the University is developing an advocacy service in which student volunteers will support those in need to access requisite legal services.

Student Digital Ambassadors – Student volunteers and community partners from the Amina Muslim Women’s Resource Centre (located in the Greyfriars Charteris Centre), and Edinburgh City libraries showcased the ambassadors scheme, in which students are trained to support community groups (including older people and those wishing to return to work) to develop digital skills.

Fundamentally, the aim of the Senate was to highlight the ways in which community engagement has a fundamental role to play in delivering high quality learning and teaching, impactful research and knowledge exchange; and in supporting our efforts as an institution to widen participation and promote better access to education.  In doing so it reaffirmed the ways in which community engagement goes to heart of the values that we espouse as an institution and the ways in which the City of Edinburgh itself is a fundamental part of our identity.

Lesley McAra

Professor Lesley McAra is Assistant Principal Community Relations and holds the Chair of Penology in the Law School. Lesley’s overall ethos is to conduct research with, on and for the community.

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