Beyond the ‘dreaming spires’ – working with our local community

Blavatnik School with Oxford University Press in the background

Blavatnik School with Oxford University Press in the background. Photo: Hufton + Crow.

Engagement with local communities is an essential part of fulfilling the School’s core mission of ‘a world better led, served and governed’. It is important to many of us as individual citizens committed to public service, too. While we are all working and studying from home at the moment, we have been thinking about new ways to engage meaningfully with the city of Oxford.

Since the School opened its doors, ensuring our events and talks are accessible to the local community, as well as to our students and the wider university, has been one of our priorities. In the past year alone, we organised and delivered around 50 public events, all of them free and accessible to everyone in the city (we also provide regular livestreaming for our events, recently a popular option for obvious reasons – see our events page). Every year we participate in the annual Oxford Open Doors weekend, which allows the general public to access iconic buildings and landmarks around the city.

Last spring staff members under Emily Jones’ leadership set up the Blavatnik School in Oxford City initiative to connect the work of the School with ongoing public policy and local community initiatives. It was felt important to act both as a school of government, and as individual citizens, to support our community and leadership at the local level.

As a first step the group identified a series of public policy ‘big issues’ that are particularly pressing within Oxford city and where the School’s collective expertise and convening power could be best used. These included poverty and inequality, homelessness and housing, and air quality and climate change, among others.

As well as providing a regular forum for staff to discuss actions and opportunities, Blavatnik School in Oxford City also set out to work with the events team to organise public discussions that would facilitate the conversation between local experts, local leaders and citizens. With Oxford being one of the least affordable places to buy (or rent) a house in the UK, housing and homelessness are two interlinked pressing issues for the city. In November 2019, we hosted a popular discussion event with representatives from local charities, Oxford City Council, and academia to understand the issues and identify the steps that the University, employers and individuals can take to address them. In December 2019, we hosted a hustings event for the local constituency (Oxford West and Abingdon) with all candidates from the four parties running in the UK general election.

Additionally, the Blavatnik School in Oxford City initiative ensured that as part of the MPP students’ induction in September, they were introduced to some of the public policy issues that Oxford city faces to highlight that the famous ‘dreaming spires’ are only one part of the Oxford picture. A list of volunteering opportunities in the city and its surrounding areas, some offered through the University and others completely independent, was disseminated among students and staff. From volunteering with local community and homelessness charities such as the Oxford Hub and The Gatehouse (where student Hannah Foxton volunteers), to being involved with student union projects such as Nightline (a confidential listening service), our list covered most areas in which individuals could lend a hand.

Engagement with local community forms part of our teaching, too. Some of our students carried out their summer project placements at local government institutions last summer, and we hope that it will be possible for current students to do the same this year. Our Case Centre on Public Leadership has been working with Oxford University Hospitals on a COVID-19 case study, which focuses on capacity planning and specialisation in hospital networks, including collaboration with private hospitals, the ethics of patient triaging, psychological care for healthcare workers, and continuing training for junior doctors.