Higher Education: Now the gowns go to town: Stephen Pritchard looks at how universities seek to strengthen their relationships with their communities, bringing benefits to both

Ever since the St Scholastica's Day riots in Oxford in 1355, universities have been aware that they need to manage their relations with the wider community. But the expansion of student numbers over the past 10 years has made universities more visible in towns and cities, underlining the importance of this relationship.

The nature of the university- community relationship is determined partly by geography and the local economy. Newcastle University, for example, is the third-largest employer in the city. But it is also influenced by the roots of the institutions themselves. The former polytechnics were founded by the Local Education Authorities with the needs of local people in mind. The older civic universities have strong local connections, especially with industry. But for those established in the Sixties, these links can be more difficult to achieve.

This diversity, and the recognition that there is no single model relationship that fits all institutions, is reflected by research being carried out at the Centre for Urban and Regional Development (Curds) at Newcastle University. The project has been sponsored by the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals, and a draft report is due to be published shortly.

Preliminary findings suggest that a key factor in how active the relationship is between university and community is the university personnel involved.

'Those universities that have been very active are often those with new vice-chancellors,' Professor John Goddard, of Curds, says. 'But then someone who is very committed can leave and it might lose impetus, especially in the older universities.'

Few universities have detailed information on projects that staff are involved in. 'One starting point is an audit,' Professor Goddard says. 'Any university that wants to take involvement with the community seriously needs to bring back to the centre knowledge of involvement. This requires better human-resources management than we often have now. Then if you try to say to vice-chancellors that they should have a list of staff involvement, most will say it is an invasion of academic freedom and privacy.'

Universities may also need to define their community. Sometimes the interests of one community may conflict with those of another. Professor Goddard cites the example of Newcastle University's own department of maritime engineering, which was active in providing consultancy and training to the growing ship-building industry in Asia - an industry that was to prove too strong a competitor for the yards on the Tyne and Wear.

Dr David Charles, at Newcastle, says: 'A university cannot be constrained. It must keep abreast of what is happening globally.'

At Plymouth University, Professor John Bull, the vice-chancellor, is clear about his institution's role in the area: 'A university has to have its roots in its regional community. The old classic division between town and gown is totally inappropriate for a modern university. At Plymouth we strive to be seen as pro-active within the communities of the region. Obviously, we are supporting the whole range of educational developments. But there is also the economic dimension: universities are sizeable players in the economic profile of the region.'

Professor Bull says Plymouth University contributes to the area's cultural life by sponsoring local arts events and sharing its expertise and resources. 'Obviously, we are not bottomless charities, but we're supportive of (local) ventures, and we can make facilities available at little or no cost when appropriate.'

But the university's main asset is its staff, he says. 'Its hundreds of well-qualified staff, not only academic, are an enormous resource for the community in their own right - whether they get involved in voluntary activity, clubs and societies, or become justices of the peace or school governors.

'The university needs not only to encourage those relationships, but also to see them as part of its general outreach. People have roles to play that extend beyond their formal jobs in the university, because they are part of other communities.'

At Sheffield University, community relations have been enhanced by the creation of the regional office, which acts as a central access point for businesses and voluntary organisations wanting to set up research links with the university.

The office also runs Plus (Project Link, University of Sheffield), an initiative that aims to increase student involvement in the community through project work, by matching outside groups interested in a particular project with the relevant university department.

Architecture students, for instance, have been helping to improve the landscaping of the entrance to the Royal Hallamshire Hospital in Sheffield, and engineering students have redesigned an oven for a local catering company.

'It means the students have a live, real project, a problem to solve, an area to investigate,' says Dr Marilyn Wedgewood, regional office head. 'And organisations benefit from the work that the students complete - which replaces some projects that might have been purely academic.'

For Sunderland University, in an area of high unemployment, community links emphasise regeneration. 'We are supporting industry through management development, consultancy and applied research,' says Dr Anne Wright, the vice-chancellor.

The university has responded to the needs of the car industry, for example, by introducing courses in automotive design, backed by employers. It also runs a programme for small businesses, called 'Make It Grow', which aims, in co-operation with the Department of Trade and Industry, to increase their computer technology capability.

If community affairs are managed with care and sensitivity, the university expansion that has prompted managers to look again at the relationship can be turned to the university's advantage.

'Raising local participation by encouraging students from the region is part of the relationship with the community,' Dr Wright says. 'The spin-off is that we are becoming more part of the community. More of our students are the people of Sunderland.

'A student is becoming less and less a stranger, less a person from outside the region. We've had much less negative reaction now that we have more students. The community is accepting students as an important part of the population.'

(Photograph omitted)