In May this year, I read an announcement to staff from the University of Central Lancashire (UCLan), that it had signed the new ‘Civic University Agreement’, reaffirming its commitment to Preston and its local communities. A commitment to a holistic approach to teaching, research and, perhaps most crucially for us, engagement. Six months into my new role at UCLan within the Faculty of Culture and Creative Industries, this resonated with our core ambitions as a new programme: UCLanDance. It aligned with all of the work the team here and I have done to date – that we all do in the participatory arts sector – building relationships, collaborating, cross-disciplinary working, listening and being responsive to our communities. So while I knew UCLanDance needed to be part of this university-wide movement and commitment to our city and region, first I needed to unpick what this meant a little more.

Universities have such a great presence in their town or city. They bring thousands of students to the local area and contribute greatly to the local economy. But what part do they play in the wellbeing of their communities? Alongside local authorities and the health sector, universities can be anchor institutions and, therefore, have responsibilities towards their communities: social, economic, educational, environmental and cultural.

Over the years, austerity and ambitions for global recognition and partnerships has led to a decline in connection to the local, to place and people. That’s not to say universities stopped working with communities, but now this is back at the top of the list of priorities for many, as at UCLan. Building meaningful and sustained relationships with local businesses, communities and other public sector organisations is key to ensuring this remains a genuine commitment. In Preston, we are already working to The Preston Model, an approach to community wealth-building pioneered by the City Council, so it feels like we have a strong local basis to build on.

This commitment has been formalised with the release of the agreement (mentioned at the start), following the UPP Foundation Civic University Commission. This major new enquiry into the future of the Civic University determines how universities can successfully serve their place in the 21st century within their local communities. To be truly local and rooted in their town or city. The agreement itself sets out four clear points:

  • understanding and listening to the needs of local people
  • a university understanding themselves and what they are able to offer
  • working with other anchor institutions, businesses and community organisations in their locality
  • creating a clear set of priorities with partners.

In essence, the strength in making connections and working together. As Lord Kerslake, Permanent Secretary at the Department of Communities and Local Government, has said:

‘Universities have an irreplaceable and unique role in helping their host communities thrive – and their own success is bound up with the success of the places that gave birth to them.’

So as I sit at the launch of the Institute of Citizenship, Society and Change at UCLan, amongst colleagues and members of our local community, I feel encouraged that my new place of work is embracing these Civic University values. I also find myself saying, ‘That’s exactly what we do’ to a colleague of mine at pretty much every point being made in the presentations! We’re after the same thing here.

UCLanDance officially launched in November last year, following a commitment from the university to the development of an outreach programme, connecting our students to industry and communities and vice versa. A recognition that developing opportunities for collaboration, for sharing, for bringing communities together is vital.

At UCLanDance, we are nurturing the next generation of dance artists, whose work will go on to enrich the communities we live in. So we aim to empower our students to be a bold and creative driving force in our city, to have the skills, knowledge and experience to work across sectors, to bring people together and to create work which has a lasting impact.

Our work is deeply rooted in and responsive to our communities in Preston, Lancashire and the North West, across the healthcare, education, criminal justice, voluntary and community sectors. We currently have three Companies in Residence at UCLanDance; CPD series for dance artists and students; outreach activity working across the sectors mentioned above; research which supports the development and growth of the sector with evidence and impact; and performances taken out into communities at museums, train stations and local schools. We’re placing access for all at the heart of our practice, with the aim of inspiring whole communities – we’re playing our part in the Civic University. To-date we have already directly engaged with over 2,500 people and this is set to rise as we develop our programme through our second year.

UCLan is an important heartbeat of Preston, Lancashire and the North West region, just like other universities are in their own cities. We need to be sharing knowledge with our communities and collaboratively creating opportunities which are transformative and responsive to the here and now, to people’s lives, challenges and successes.

Can we get back to the universities of the Victorian era, who were founded as expressions of civic pride? Can we reframe the landscape of Higher Education? As a witness to the commitment, passion and proactive work of UCLan, I think we can. UCLanDance is a very small part of a huge institution but our impact can be widespread, valued and integral to the university’s civic responsibility.

So I finish this blog feeling even more inspired, ready to continue making our mark at UCLan and to make sure our work reaches across schools, across communities, across our city and region. I must admit that in my interview for this role I asked how big they wanted this new initiative to reach and they answered, ‘As far as we can go’ – which I said must mean going global!

Now, with big ambitions still part of the plan, I keep a quote at my desk from activist Grace Lee Boggs which says:

‘Change takes place in living systems, not from above, but from within, from many local actions occurring simultaneously’.