While attending the Material Inventions conference, which happened at the Burwood campus of Deakin, I asked conference delegates about how the university engaged with the local community. Burwood is a seemingly silent suburban area and the university appears on the landscape like an oasis of activity, a potential node for the surrounding residents that can offer resources and facilities. The response I received is that the university and the locals don’t really mix and there isn’t much happening in the way of a social dialogue. The next question I ask is whether the university is a ‘good neighbour’ to which I usually receive a vague response and a litany of lost opportunities.
I hear these kinds of stories recounted repeatedly – perhaps campuses located in regional towns are performing better in terms of community engagement and resources (please let me know if you have stories to tell as I would welcome some Australian examples of urban/suburban innovation involving a university). At the Suburban Creative Geographies workshop I attended the workshop convenor, Terry Flew, said that he was aware that 35% of universities are located in ‘regional areas’ (regional in this context means non-metropolitan) yet seem disengaged from their local areas, particularly in suburban areas. Surely, there is some need for a new agenda of institutional engagement by universities of the communities in which they are situated. There is certainly a case for enhanced engagement given policy priorities of ‘smart communities’ – which probably don’t tend to grow out of dormitory suburbs.
Of course, this is an issue that resonates personally for me. QUT’s campus in neighbouring Carseldine has been vacant for a year and there has been little, if any, dialogue with the local community about the impact of this on the locality or the broader region. The Federal Government has now announced an ‘innovative region’ initiative in Brisbane North (including Moreton Bay Regional Council) and this should mean a more coherent approach to planning and innovation through enterprise, education and training, primarily targeting small to medium business. However, it means there are now only two universities in this northern region – the Australian Catholic University and the QUT campus at Caboolture – and some TAFE campuses. The Carseldine campus could play a pivotal or catalyst role in this initiative, enabling more social and policy innovation while also promoting leadership and learning through community-institution partnerships founded in relationship building and engagement.