Universities in a time of austerity: participatory geographies

Students take part in a ‘Silent Seminar’

Post by Dr Pete North

We all know that the current economic conditions in which universities have to function are very difficult for all involved.  We don’t yet know what the changes to funding and fees will mean for the students who are paying, or for universities.  But these challenges also present a possibility to think differently about the ways in which we, as academics, engage with our students and the communities that we research with. Participatory geography is one example of new ways of researching and teaching being explored in geography.

I am Chair of the Participatory Geography Research Group of the Royal Geographical Society and Institute of British Geographers. The group has two aims:

First, we think that the people geographers work with are not ‘objects’, like specimens on a Petri dish, to be prodded and studied by academics who are seen to have a privileged view.  We argue instead that better research will come if academics work with the communities they are researching to identify questions, ways of answering them, and work out what the data mean together. That way, we will get better answers, and the process will help everyone involved to better understand the world, so we can change things for the better.

Secondly, we argue that research should be about making the real world a better place.  Universities are civic institutions – The University of Liverpool was founded to advance knowledge and enrich the human experience. To be true to these roots, we need to remember that despite the changes in funding, universities are not private sector companies, but part of that rich civil society tradition of organisations like the press, voluntary and community groups, churches, trade unions and professional societies that are vital for an inclusive democratic society.

The Participatory Geography Research Group has recently been discussing what the new world of university funding means, not just for research but also for teaching, and has been thinking about how we can make sure that this leads to a better university experience for all concerned.  To do so, we suggest that it’s important in the new funding regime to make sure that students are not seen as  customers, as purchasers of our products and services, but as part of the team of knowledge producers – people who we respect, nurture and support and who can also teach us things.  We should remember to co-operate with, not compete against each other, and review each others’, and students’ work in a positive, constructive and supportive light.  We should bring the best out of each other, not try to get ahead at any cost. We should use teaching and learning methods that enrich the learning experience, and help students grow to be people in control of their destiny, committed to using their geographical knowledge to help solve some of humanity’s pressing problems

The participatory geographies research group ‘Communifesto for ‘Fuller Geographies’ can be found here

It’s inspired by Duncan Fuller who worked at Northumbria University.  Duncan died at a tragically young age, but he was always someone who was alive with the missions of giving the most to his students to inspire them to get out there and make the world a better place both at university and in their later careers.  What can be a more fulfilling job than having the opportunity to teach and inspire, and later learn from, future generations of problem solvers? The Participatory Geography Research Group’s mission is to advance that way of thinking about what universities are about, and developing new, engaged ways of making the experience of life at university more fulfilling.

The challenge is to make this vision of university life a reality.