By Alice M Salmon, on 22 January 2013
So the time has come for me to write my first blog post and, after an initial panic, I decided that this would be an opportune moment to talk about Outreach: What it is, why we do it, and what it actually involves.
Now I know that discussing outreach in this forum is pretty much preaching to the converted but, for my role, there is a distinct difference between outreach and Outreach and, although this might be incredibly pedantic of me, I want to talk about it.
I will start with my role. Briefly, my position as a Senior Outreach Officer is split across two departments: the first half of my week is spent with the University Outreach Office in the Registry and the second half in Museums and Public Engagement. I am responsible for running summer schools, working with care leavers, and helping to increase UCL’s museums and collections Outreach offer, amongst other things. Well, this all sounds straightforward enough. However, I have lost count of the times that I have been outside of work and faced with the question “so what is it you do?”, only to be met with vague, blank, and occasionally, entirely disinterested faces. Now this is no fault of my acquaintances or friends, but rather I think that the problem lies with the term “outreach”, in its vague entirety.
So what is outreach? Quite literally, it is the process of providing services to people or groups who may not have access to such services (it doesn’t take a genius to work that one out). But what does that mean in relation to both the Museum Sector and the Higher Education landscape and, in turn, what does this mean when both sectors are combined as they are in my role? In essence, when does outreach become Outreach?
Let’s start first with museums. It goes without saying that education is an intrinsic function of a museum. However, museums are currently facing an increasingly difficult financial landscape. It is interesting to see where cuts have to be made and, regrettably, recent budget cuts have resulted in an increasing number of museum educators facing redundancy and turning to freelance work. (In some places as much as 15-20% according to this article: http://www.museumsassociation.org/museums-journal/archive-search/02012013-the-educators). Obviously this isn’t an easy decision for museums and often these losses are more easily justifiable then losing central members of museum staff. Yet the fact remains that some museums and galleries are losing core members of front-facing staff who are responsible for outreach work and educational engagement. Is there an argument that needs to be made for the benefits of Outreach? In stark contrast to the picture nationwide, it is great to see that the opposite applies to UCL’s Museums and Collections who have a great team of staff dedicated to engaging different and diverse audiences with the collections in fun and interesting ways. All of this work is outreach, and brilliant outreach at that. However, my work as an Outreach Officer is more rigidly defined than this, even in relation to my work with museums, as crucially, as the Museums and Collections exist as part of UCL, the ways in which we can use our museums and collections in Outreach work has become increasingly important .
Basically, outreach is great, but outreach for outreach’s sake isn’t something that can be as easily justified by universities anymore. And here’s why:
The HE landscape has changed considerably with the rise in tuition fees and the demise of Aimhigher, the previous government’s initiative to increase the participation of underrepresented groups at University. Those that know Aimhigher may also be familiar with the term Widening Participation, a term that is no longer “fashionable” and has been replaced with, hey you guessed it, Outreach! Without wanting to bore everyone with a load of details and statistics, there are a couple of things worth noting. All universities who wish to charge over £6000 per year in tuition fees must produce an Access Agreement. (UCL’s can be found here: http://www.ucl.ac.uk/prospective-students/outreach/about-us/access). This document stipulates what universities have committed to in order to increase participation and retention of underrepresented groups at university. What is different from the days of Aimhigher is that universities have been asked to produce very specific targets for this, quite scary targets to be exact. To do this, we have to be in turn highly targeted, not only in the activities and programmes that we design, but also in how we access the students who we wish to work with. Our guidance comes from the Office of Fair Access (OFFA), and examples of our target groups are; students from non selective state schools with a high percentage of free school meals, or students from areas of low participation rates to higher education, to name but two examples.
Now I’m not going to pretend that I think the rise in tuition fees is a great idea, but it is important to look at the implications. For a start, the stark targets, and most importantly potential repercussions if these targets aren’t met, means that, not only have universities had to invest a lot more money into Outreach, there is a new network of support from within university structures, as well as a real impetus for new projects. Similarly, although Outreach targeting criteria can be restrictive, its presence in high profile documents cements the importance of the Outreach work that we do. Finally, in relation to the Outreach work that Museums and Collections already do, not only is there real support for primary school Outreach from UCL, there is the chance to re-launch past successful projects, and to develop new Outreach work for secondary schools. Not only is this great for me, who has been tasked with developing the exciting projects, it further illustrates the importance of UCL’s Museums and Collections as central to UCL’s Outreach agenda. Through object based learning in particular, the Museums and Collections make the world of higher education and academia, often seen by our target groups as abstract and distant, quite literally something concrete and accessible.
In conclusion, outreach is an extremely useful umbrella term that covers a great deal of positive and influential work done across varying institutions. In contrast, although Outreach can fit neatly under this umbrella, it is part of a political rhetoric; a title that has become loaded with meaning. The meaning of which may be clear cut in the Higher Education landscape, but can it be further defined in the landscape of museums and galleries? In relation to UCL’s Museum and Collections, I think we will all agree that this is already happening. Our work with primary schools, object based learning sessions, and the return of our summer schools, to name only a few examples, prove this: let’s continue to lead from the front!
Alice Salmon is a Senior Outreach Officer for UCL Museums and Collections