Would Hillsborough research be supported today?

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Professor John Diamond (Director of the University’s I4P) adds a note of caution following the outcome of the Hillsborough Inquiry:

It is absolutely understandable that people will be celebrating the hard work and commitment of the families who have suffered so much over such a long period of time. And to recognise too, that some public figures who now praise them have for many years continued to doubt their campaign and their account of what transpired and challenged their claims that the Police covered up what happened.

Learning lessons from this will not be straightforward. There are many lessons, but there is one which is common to campaigns of this type. It is about commitment and dedication of those most affected by what has happened. Their resolve is the most significant lesson which is so evident. It is what links other campaigns against injustice. Supportive journalists and dedicated academics play their part but they do not sustain campaigns. Those of us on the fringe can be supportive but our actions are tiny in comparison.

Why is this lesson important? The work of Professor Phil Scraton and his colleagues has been important there is no doubt about that. I am sure that he would not over state his part. And yes journalists and politicians have played their part too. Nevertheless, if we think that academics are essential in campaigns like Hillsborough, we should examine the current context.

One of the worrying aspects of the last 20 years in Higher Education has been the drift towards conformity. A recent report in the Times Higher described how in science research, there was some evidence that so called blue skies thinking proposals were being rejected because they challenged existing paradigms. To his credit Phil and his team consistently challenged a range of state actors from the police to the coroners court to the mass media.

In an age where we are becoming more risk averse would we support this work now? Would we fund such challenging academic research?

As the present government make it harder for charities to question government policy if they have received funding from the state, and the implication is that this might move across into HE, can we be sure that the next Phil Scraton would be supported in work which at the time did not just question a paradigm but the actions of a state agency (the Police) who were supported – especially in South Yorkshire- by the Thatcher Government. Protecting such intellectual freedom is precious for all of us. How secure is it?

Why is it difficult to work with universities?

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Professor John Diamond (Director of the University’s I4P) on why higher education needs not to assume that their world view is shared:

Looking to develop good university, community or locality relationships is a recurrent theme and plea from practitioners and policy makers.

On March 21st we are co-hosting an event in Manchester (click here for details), which brings together three different approaches to this issue, from Brighton, Durham and Liverpool, to an audience of voluntary sector organisations and activists across Greater Manchester.

Why? Partly because the demand from universities on the voluntary sector has been growing. Students want to enhance their CVs, and universities have a multiple set of arrangements with community networks, from formal placement for vocational or practice based programmes (teaching, social work, planning and architecture), to a general recognition that voluntary organisations need volunteers.

Whose needs are being met? In a virtuous circle everyone’s. In an unequal world, probably the student and the university. Universities also need the outside world for their research led impact case studies.

Are everyone’s needs met here? Possibly not. Perhaps sometimes.

Are we good at spreading what works and sustaining relationships and networks? Oftentimes no. Despite a major investment in public engagement, universities capacity to resort to short term memory is fascinating but frustrating.

How to change it? First step accept the problem exists. Second step adapt more proactive strategies of engagement. Third step seek to consolidate sustainable relationships. Fourth step remember what step one was!

The possibilities for shared learning are huge. But for that to happen we have to accept the potential exists. It’s that shift which is critical. But it also has the potential of radically altering the perspective through which universities view their communities. Now that would be fascinating to realise.

Why all universities should consider a Festival of Ideas

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Professor John Diamond (Director of the University’s I4P) makes the case for expanding Festivals of Ideas in Universities:

This week sees the start of the Edge Hill’s Festival of Ideas – Imagining Better. It is like many such initiatives – it draws on an eclectic range of events from public lectures, to films, to drama to art and photographic exhibitions, to workshops and book signings. It’s diverse, it’s stimulating and it reflects an important objective which is to create a space in which ideas, discussion and conversation can flow and in turn stimulate reflection and thought.

They are part (almost) of the furniture across higher education institutions. And whilst they are important (really important) they are, I think, a necessary but not a sufficient condition for all the possibilities outlined above to take place.

An important aspect of the concept (and this is central for me about the Edge Hill Festival) is both that it encourages, supports and makes explicit the idea of multi-disciplinary thinking and work. Whilst there are different bits of the University hosting particular aspects we could delete the organisational home and there would be recurring and overlapping themes. And central to that is the idea of how our learning and thinking is much more flexible and curious than any one subject or department or discipline. I think that’s a huge strength of what we are offering and I hope it becomes part of the taken for granted nature of what makes a good and exciting event.

Secondly, I think these events highlight the centrality of universities acting as civil society institutions in the public space where we need to encourage dialogue and the exchange of ideas.

And finally, the weaknesses in this approach: we need to develop much more examples of learning from and listening to those outside the academy. And perhaps a good sign of that will not be that next year we have a fringe which is even more interesting than the main event but when the fringe is the academy and the main event is a much more creative and different set of voices and experiences from which we deliberately seek to learn with and from.

In the meantime enjoy this year’s programme.

Edge Hill’s Festival of Ideas 2016 is a diverse range of events exploring culture, health and society. The main theme is Imagining Better – envisioning ways for communities, arts and healthcare to develop and flourish, even in times of austerity and inequality.

Click here for a full list of events.