There are many fine examples of universities interacting with their local communities to drive access, boost employability and to help to stimulate economic growth. Here in Australia the University of Tasmania and Federation University, to name just two, are doing excellent work in this regard.

In the UK, one of the country’s lesser-known universities has come up with an enterprising and innovative scheme aimed at boosting the educational opportunities particularly for the many disadvantaged people within its catchment.

London South Bank University is pioneering a plan (pdf) to deliver a comprehensive range of educational offerings for the residents and employers in its corner of south central London.

Working with several local organisations such as the South Bank Engineering Academy and a new Institute for Professional and Technical Education it has established a “Family of Educational Providers”, offering a range of educational and technical skills programs under an agreed educational framework and aligned pedagogic and curriculum approaches.

Its aim is to provide learners of all levels and ages “with high quality education when they need it and in ways which best suit their needs”, and which helps to build social capital and confidence.

“Learners will be able to transfer easily between technical, vocational and academic pathways, building a portfolio of skills, experience and qualifications.”

One of the benefits of the “Family” set-up, says vice-chancellor Professor David Phoenix, is that institutions working together are better placed to widen participation than any single provider.

“By having a joint educational framework they can create individualised learning pathways which enable students to learn what they need, with the right learning approach for them.”

Close collaboration between institutions means that pupils from local schools benefit from use of university facilities and contact with undergraduate students who provide mentoring, he says.

“This helps students build their social capital, experience and confidence and fosters ambitions for pursuing higher education among pupils.”

Phoenix says that one of the problems around government and university strategies to widen participation is that they put too much emphasis on academic pathways and so ignore the majority of learners, and also overlook those engaged in further and vocational study.

Choices for re-entering education are severely limited, he says, if students fail the “age-determined hurdles” of school and university exams

The “Family” seeks to address this by providing access back into education both through adult education courses and through an Institute of Professional and Technical Education, which also helps employers to upskill their staff.

Age-based barriers are also put aside, thus allowing students to learn “what they need when they need it”.

This is a great example of a university responding to the needs of its community.