What have Universities got to do with Co-Production?

Kevin & Perry. Co-production candidates
Kevin & Perry. Co-production candidates

This weekend I completed my 9th university ‘prospective entrant’ open day in two years.

Obviously it’s not me that is the planning to go to University, although I have been tempted. That happened for me 30 years ago, when there were 100% grants and ‘free love’ (I lie about the free love).

These were excursions with two of my sons, who didn’t seem to enjoy the experience as much as I have. Strange that. The University hosts say “please ask as many questions as you like”, so I do.

Apparently that makes me ‘weird and embarrassing’. (Secret Tip: with teenage kids you get even in any way you can)

Beware of the ‘Welcome Speech’ 

Before I get onto co-production I just want to reflect upon some things I’ve seen at 7 separate universities. They are all slightly obsessed. It seems to me that you cannot go to a university open day without being overloaded with; where they sit in the rankings, how students rate the experience and being asked for your feedback.

  1. We do well in the rankings. There’s not a single Vice Chancellor ‘welcome speech’ that hasn’t majored on how brilliantly the University has done in the assessment tables. Every statistic presented is usually in the 90% region and to be honest, I find it difficult to differentiate in the 90%+ zone. Oddly though, nobody mentions the ‘could do better’ statistics.
  2. The student experience here is outstanding. A bit like above, all the figures seem improbably brilliant. Just a bit of a moan here…. it wasn’t like this in my day. Undergraduates were a ‘damn nuisance’, that got in the way of the lecturers persuing more interesting intellectual challenges.
  3. Feedback, feedback, feedback. They all go on about how important feedback is to them, and to emphasise the point, thrust feedback forms into your hands at every opportunity.

It’s not just me that’s noticed this, so has Son number 2. He now refuses to go to any more ‘rubbish marketing speeches’. That’s fine with me, as it gives us more time to get down to real business…… the trip to the Department and the chat with the real people.

Casual conversations can tell you how things really work.

Just about every open day has offered up some real students to talk with. These are the real gems that tell you about what life is really like in the university.

I would encourage anyone who is going to an open day to seek out these students and ask them what they think about the course. I’ve not been disappointed. In my experience the most open and forthcoming are the final year students. The other place to get a feel for the place is the canteen, which I wrote about here (think of it as field ethnography).

What has this got to do with Universities and Co-production? 

A couple of observations here.

  1. Throughout my visits I heard many lecturers taking about how they spoke with students to  help shape the courses they delivered.  This covered all of the things you might expect; the style of teaching, the method of assessment (course work or examination), contact time with the lecturers, balance between theory and practice etc. That sounded good, courses being designed with direct input from those participating.
  2. When I spoke with a few of the students they backed up what I was hearing. In particular, one 3rd year who had been working in industry as part of their work experience was very clear about the situation; “we are out there getting the work experience which means we know what the employers want. When we come back in we tell the course lecturers, and they change the course to deliver what is needed”.
  3. One further thing, from lecturers and students (and the university literature) I picked up, was the importance of responding to the needs of industry. It was absolutely full of references to working with industry and helping to develop young people to work with them.

So, is this an example of co-production?

If you have a look at the wikipedia definition of co-production, I would suggest yes.

  • Co-production means delivering public services in an equal and reciprocal relationship between professionals, people using services, their families and their neighbours” (new economics foundation)

I’m not sure you could tick all the boxes on this definition, but it’s a fair attempt:

  • Professionals – Yes, the University are involved
  • Service Users – Yes, the students are involved
  • Families – Yes, I have an input (the Head of School foolishly gave me his card)
  • Neighbours – Yes, I would put future employers in this category

What’s not to like?

You could question elements of this like the degree of being ‘equal and reciprocal’ mentioned in the definition. However, it does feel a lot different to many public services I’ve experienced over the years, and a lot more co-porductive than my own university experience.

Maybe there are lessons from the world of Higher Education that other public services might want to look at, particularly those just coming to terms with co-production?

If you want to find out for yourself, just tag along at a university open days and ask lots questions……sulky teenage offspring optional.

So, what’s the PONT?

  1. A casual conversation can tell you a lot about what is going on in an institution.
  2. Just seeking feedback isn’t co-production; it’s more than that. Professionals, service users and others need to be involved on an equal footing.
  3. Universities are practicing something that looks like co-production. Others could learn from this.

If you want to read more about co-production, here is a 2012 paper from Ruth Dineen; Co-production: all in this together, presented at the University of Brighton.

Ruth was previously the Head of the Creative Writing Department at Cardiff School of Art and Design. The paper gives a good insight of co-production from the University Professional’s perspective. It was interesting to link this with my experience as the parent of a service user.

Ruth currently runs Co-production Wales / All in this Together which is doing a lot, along with Working With Not To, to help the voluntary and public sector in Wales develop co-production.

About WhatsthePONT

I'm from Old South Wales and I'm interested almost everything. Narrowing it down a bit: cooperatives, social enterprises, decent public services, complexity science, The Cynefin Framework, behavioural science and a sustainable future. In 2018/19 I completed a Winston Churchill Travelling Fellowship, looking at big cooperative enterprises and social businesses in NE Spain and the USA. You can find out more here: https://whatsthepont.com/churchill-fellowship/

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