Urban Education Live: How changing the role of universities can enhance urban equality

More people than ever before obtain a university education, but certain communities, such as the working class and ethnic minorities, are sometimes underrepresented in the university system. Ideally, universities should serve the needs of all members of society. However, universities shouldn’t wait for disadvantaged communities to come to them. Instead, they should go to them with the type of education they need.  Urban Education Live (UEL) is a project that aims to provide alternative strategies for teaching marginalised communities outside the university environment. It has conducted research in Salo in Finland, Ljubljana in Slovenia, Bucharest in Romania, and Sheffield in the United Kingdom. Panu Lehtovuori, the project’s coordinator, tells us about their findings…


You have to shake things up

One thing UEL’s research has already proven is that universities serve marginalised communities best when they embrace hybrid institutions. These are partnerships between universities and other local actors, like schools and NGOs. These actors tend to have stronger ties to marginalised communities and can offer universities a clearer understanding of what these communities actually need. It’s important to note, in hybrid institutions, universities shouldn’t make the mistake of limiting themselves to their traditional roles of research and education. If universities work dynamically with their partners, universities can embrace new roles that help marginalised communities. For example, in the Bucharest case, the non-university partner (the Association for Urban Transition), took on the responsibility for producing the methodology for their social mapping research. This freed the university up to concentrate more energy on playing the role of mediators between the different urban actors in Bucharest. They did this by creating a local hub where different urban actors come together and talk through their differences. When these actors come together, the university plays the part of a good-faith mediator, capable of honestly pointing out areas where the different parties can reach an amicable agreement. 

Nevertheless, a lot of the time universities will still have to play their traditional educational role. Yet, this requires a recognition of the fact that their traditional methods of pedagogy won’t necessarily work with marginalised communities.


“Panu thinks the project’s live learning approach has a lot of potential to help universities find
new methods that successfully engage marginalised communities.”


The live learning approach is a process based on two principles: the first is “create new pedagogical forms” tailored for the target audience. An example of this is the game-based learning approach used in Finland. This approach was tailored explicitly for its appeal to the young and entrepreneurial group they were working with. The second principle is to embrace experimental urban space. Specifically, using or creating spaces that are meaningful and familiar to marginalised communities. An example of this would be the Live Works urban room, a dedicated community learning space in the city centre of Sheffield.


Working with what you’ve got

Panu emphasises that although there is some focus on creating permanent spaces for marginalised communities, overall the project has spent much more time on processes that allow universities to use existing spaces effectively. With the exception of the Live Works space in Sheffield, most of the project’s experimental spaces were “ephemeral and temporary.” This means the project could compare and evaluate all sorts of spaces instead of trying to construct a single ideal one. So, it’s gone from testing an out-of-business shopping mall in Salo to an old Tobacco factory in Ljubljana.

Panu hopes that by testing out these different spaces and places, they can create a toolkit that can be used by universities to quickly and effectively reach out to marginalised communities. This kit will consist of a selection of approaches, organised by their appeal to certain communities, as well as a selection of urban space models, organised by their suitability for certain types of activity. Panu wants to clarify that in each case a university will have to consider the unique and specific needs of their target community and then adapt the methods and models from the toolkit accordingly.


It takes time to build trust

The project has also identified how building a relationship with a marginalised community takes more time than they are normally used to having in a project. Panu says, “successful action in marginalised communities can’t be achieved within a few years.” Unfortunately, most university projects tend to only last three to five years at most. So, UEL is generating ideas for how universities can create more sustainable connections with marginalised communities that aren’t linked to a single project’s time frame. One idea that sounds particularly promising is setting up a permanent network that connects a university to marginalised communities in their local area. Panu is careful to convey that they are “still playing around with the idea” as they have to seriously consider feasibility issues and pinning down with absolute clarity the kind of aims that would allow the network to be both useful and sustainable.     

Panu personally wants to see a network based on staff exchange between universities and third sector organisations that work with marginalised communities. He thinks with the right kind of structure, personnel, and frequency, universities would develop valuable continuous connections and up to date knowledge regarding the marginalised communities around them, which is something they currently lack. Having said this, Panu does concede that the project still has to work out how a local community worker or an NGO staff member could benefit from being in the university setting.


Don’t underestimate people

Before the end of the interview, Panu offers one final thought, “We shouldn’t be too quick to dismiss certain people.” He believes this project has shown how certain groups often dismissed as unimportant or not useful, such as those suffering mental health problems or the young and unemployed, actually have a lot of great ideas. Offering an example, Panu recalls the entrepreneurial workshops in Salo, Finland:


“It was amazing how the youth were starting to think of business possibilities.”


This argument seems intuitively persuasive when considering the fact that humans are innately curious and have a natural tendency to build or create things. Most of the time all that’s required is the proper motivation; marginalised communities are no different in this respect. 

This project shows universities, in particular, are well-positioned and well equipped to help marginalised communities. If universities reach out, they can provide valuable education and guidance that could make a world of difference to people who are too often written off. However, it will take careful consideration and reflection on what works best. Thankfully, projects like this one offer a step in the right direction.


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