A Civil Society University For The U.K.?

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Graduation (small) 06.7.6-9 066.jpgThe place where non-state, non-business public activities challenge the assumptions of wealthy organisations and the ruling classes or prevailing consensus is often referred to as ‘civil society’. A proposal that this place have its own university in the U.K., to scrutinise and develop the core skills and specialist knowledge base of the ‘third sector’ of the economy, is now being taken seriously.

PrimeTimers is a London-based social enterprise promoting cross-sector transfers of people, ideas and methods. In Autumn 2005 they held a conference, Agenda for Change, from which emerged the idea of a 'Civil Society University’. This idea is also a response to the UK Government's review of the Future Role of the Third Sector in Social and Economic Regeneration.

A key concept underlying the idea is that third sector values and practices should be submitted to rigorous testing in terms of intellectual integrity, reasoned debate and scientific research. Such an approach has welcome and important implications for how civil society might develop over the next few decades and beyond.

Multiple conceptualisation, multiple benefits
Like many other good ideas, the Civil Society University concept has also emerged in other places – for instance, at a Council of Europe conference in September 2005 and in a submission dated December 2005 to the Organisation of American States from the Permanent Forum of Civil Society Organisations.

Civil society is the arena where the right of free speech and association is exercised to promote many and diverse causes for what their proponents believe to be the greater good. Often these beliefs challenge the prevailing or most powerful consensus; yet rarely is attention given to the skills and knowledge which could best support such a challenge.

The benefits which might accrue from rigorous scrutiny by the academy, by those who practise their skills in higher education, are what make the idea of a Civil Society University appeal to many involved in widely diverse parts of the third sector.

Education, not 'just' training
There is a real need for parts of the third sector to move away from its historic philanthropic roots towards a sharper professional focus. Volunteers (nonetheless, preferably trained) will always be at the heart of at least some third sector activities; but they usually cannot provide the hard headedness which is required in running large-scale or complex modern organisations.

Indeed, thus far it would be difficult even to estimate what added value (or not?) would derive from a more fully functioning and defined third sector key skills 'toolbox'. And the same applies to issues around third sector career structure and professional development. This is where the Civil Society University fits in.

Challenge and opportunity
For some the proposal to subject the third sector and its operation could pose a perceived threat, but that does not do the idea justice.

Those who share a concern to 'make things better' will more likely welcome the chance to support a move to do exactly that, to 'make good things more effective still'.

What could be better than to subject our ideas and practices to a form of scrutiny - always itself open to scrutiny and challenge - intended to make the very best of the resources, people and commitment available to effect a more equitable and civil society?




Contacts

The Civil Society University is proposed by Professor Martin Albrow, Dr Mary Chadwick and Brent Thomas, all of PrimeTimers.

They can be contacted at info@primetimers.org.uk.



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