History of Project
When Bertram Brockington, Maggie Teuten and Carol McCullough joined Exeter U3A a few years ago, they were surprised to note that there was no formal arrangement with their local university. Many U3As are linked in various ways with their local university, including at least 13 in the Russell Group of which Exeter is a member. Although there had been some contact between the two organisations in the past, nothing concrete had emerged.
Our team decided to seek help from Plymouth U3A who had built up a very successful link with Plymouth University and had set up a formal MOU (Memorandum of Understanding), enabling U3A members to attend some lectures and to be involved in such events as Open Days. Our team emerged from the meeting (also attended by their link member of staff from the university) fired up with enthusiasm about how to move forward with our own plans. A chance discussion about U3A between Professor Herbert McGregor (U3A member) and Dr Helen Featherstone (Project Manager of Catalyst) on another topic entirely, led us to another meeting – but this time on our own university’s Streatham Campus.
THE ROLE OF THE CATALYST PROJECT
The Catalyst project was a three-year, Research Councils UK-funded, project to support and develop a culture of public engagement with research within the University of Exeter. Exeter was one of eight universities who were also successful in securing this funding. We made some useful links through Catalyst, initially through Dr Helen Featherstone, then Grace Williams. Although the project has now finished wehave had very good contact with the member of staff involved in the public engagement field, Anka Djordjevic . Catalyst was responsible for setting up our first event in August 2013, on Bioenergy.
Through Catalyst, we were asked if we could provide a lay member to sit on two university committees – the Exeter Animal Welfare & Ethical Review Group (OlwenGoodall) and Social Sciences and International Studies Ethics Committee (Peter Cleasby).Dr Featherstone also introduced us to Professor John Wilkins, from Classics and Ancient History who was to become a key contact in our networking process.
THE ETHOS OF THE EXETER U3A/EXETER UNIVERSITY LIAISON TEAM
U3As tend to be made up of special interest groups – and Exeter U3A is no exception – from Reading groups and Discussion groups, through Biology and Classical Music, to Hearty Hikers and Philosophy. There really is something for everyone. However, the Exeter U3A/Exeter University Liaison Project is not a ‘group’ in that all paid-up members of Exeter U3A can attend any of our sessions. They do not need to be part of a specific group.
Our main aim is to set up mutually beneficial links between the members of Exeter U3A and our university in Exeter. We wanted to work towards an MOU to formalise our link.
We knew that persuasion was going to be needed on both sides. Initially some U3A members were sceptical – the campus was too far away, nothing to do with them – the classic ‘town v gown’ attitude. On the other side, public engagement was mainly with schools and colleges as well as businesses. We needed to show everyone how useful the link could be. What we did not want was to simply ask an academic to come to a hired room in the centre of Exeter to ‘do a talk’. We wanted to find out about the research that was going on in a variety of departments and to find out if we could help. Of course we wanted to stimulate our brains and introduce our members to a variety of topics they might otherwise never have become interested in. Exeter U3A members have worked in many different organisations and have a wealth of life experience and expertise to share.
Although Catalyst helped us to get started and make some contacts, most of our links with academic staff have come from our own networking. To a reader of the reports on our website, our sessions may seem rather random – and they are! We have followed up all suggestions in a variety of departments. Some staff are too busy or not interested at all; others are happy to do a one-off talk about their research; others are very keen for us to become involved in their research – not just that of the academic staff but at times their students as well.
To counteract the ‘town v gown’ attitude, we wanted our sessions to be on the campus, easily accessible from the centre of Exeter. We also wanted to make it easy for academics, so our small liaison team usually arrange initial meetings with interested staff over coffee on campus. Our earliest coffee meeting was with Professor John Wilkins, who introduced us to Professor Richard Seaford, both of whom have invited a group of Exeter U3A members onto the campus to discuss their research within Classics and Ancient History. Professor Wilkins has since introduced us to several interested colleagues.
In the past three years our liaison work has gone from strength to strength and it is impossible to mention all of the events that have taken place. We have had talks by experts in their field, presentations by research students and involvement in research. Full details can be found on Exeter’s U3A website - http://u3asites.org.uk/exeter
Follow the links to Exeter University Liaison.
We have tried to organise an event each month but this can prove difficult in term time due to the availability of staff and rooms on campus. We did, however, manage to have 16 events on campus in 2015.
Two members of staff must be singled out as being particularly supportive to our aims – Associate Professor Claire Dunlop from the Department of Politics and Lorna Harries Associate Professor in Molecular Genetics from the Medical School.
Exeter U3A members are not just a passive audience. Most of the time we actually ‘do’ something e.g. complete a questionnaire, as well as provide a stimulating and challenging group of questioners.
The following gives some idea of the range of activities we have been involved in so far:
• Miracle Cures and Health Panics – Medical School
• All Things Bright and Beautiful - The Science of Colour - Physics
• The Invention of Money – Classics and Ancient History
• 'Wave-particle duality' – Physics
• The Galen Roadshow – Classics and Ancient History
• Mitigators in Conversation – French
• How Germany views its Nazipast– German
• ‘You are as old as your genes’– Medical School
• Think-Tank seminar - Mood Disorder Centre
• Family Classes and Storytelling with international students at INTO University of Exeter
• The EU –Myths and Evidence – Politics
We have been asked to become involved in Clinical Skills work in the Medical School, in research at the Centre for Biomedical Modellingand Analysis, in designing an app related to German museums, to name but a few of the areas. Although it is natural that we have more involvement with the Medical School because of the age of U3A members (about 50-90) we are anxious to make sure that the university does not want us because we are old and have a variety of health conditions! We are pleased that we were able to help PhD students with their research into the 1960s and the Politics Department in their research with the Health and Safety Executive too. Exeter U3A members have wide interests and we are at present making new contacts and have already planned a stimulating year of engagement with our university for 2016. At the time of writing we are busy making new contacts to plan our 2016/7 programme.
We are delighted to say that on 03.03.16 we signed a Memorandum of Understanding between Exeter U3A and the University of Exeter. This was signed by one of our Vice Chairs, TrudiLearmouth, and by Professor Debra Myhill, Pro-Vice Chancellor and Executive Dean in the College of Social Sciences and International Studies. We are grateful to all the university staff – both academic and administrative – who have helped us to reach this goal. We have also been well supported by the Exeter U3A committee and by many enthusiastic U3A members. We look forward to ‘spreading the word’ about our link – and to sharing many more events in the future.
We had fewer than 20 members who attended our first event in 2013– and now it is not unusual to have 70-80 in the audience. We definitely have some ‘converts’ amongst our members and we have even had to ask our fellow member Helen Cleasby to become our administrator! She is doing a wonderful job.Our networking continues………………….
Carol McCullough (for the team) 05.08.16