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Education in the Age of Social Distancing: The idea of the Community University-Prof Jenny Pearce

posted on 2021-04-15, 08:36 authored by Jenny Pearce

Covid19 has presented humanity with a range of new challenges to add to inequalities, climate change, violence and others. It introduced the term ’social distancing’ as an essential tool to prevent the spread of the virus. The outcome has been deep changes in our social encounters and relationships. Education went ‘online’ for many, exposing digital poverty as an added blight of the digital age. Entertainment, eating out, shopping have all been interrupted. It is not yet clear for how long and what new kinds of socialising will emerge. However, even before Covid19, our human interactions had become profoundly changed by the distancing impacts of the rise of social media, and with it, new scepticism about what is ’true’, alongside digitally fuelled conflict and aggression. Yet, higher education is about evidence, peer review and debate; it provides the analytical tools society needs. Yet, some argue that the sector today is in a new crisis of purpose and identity. The pandemic in fact, accelerated the social distancing that had already begun to (re)shape our social and political relationships, eroding confidence in the meaning of knowledge. While the pandemic may have brought back the importance of ‘expert knowledge’ to life itself, it is not clear that it has generated any better understanding of the value of learning per se., just when we need an intellectually curious, critical, informed and socially connected population more than ever before.

This leads to the topic of this lecture. Building on experiences and research in Latin America, with the Community University which we developed in Bradford and the Learning City which we are launching in Salford on 25 March, the lecture will open up a discussion on how higher education could potentially connect with a population living in digitally and socially distanced Britain.

How can the value of knowledges within the community and within the university be recognised and exchanged in order to bring people closer together in the search for personal development as well as informed and active responses to the multiple challenges ahead?


Prof Jenny Pearce is a political scientist who specialises in Latin America. She works with anthropological and participatory research methodologies on social change, violence, security, power and participation in the region and beyond. She considers herself a peace scholar, committed to theoretical development of the field of peace, power and violence as well as empirical study.

She has conducted fieldwork since the 1970s in Uruguay, El Salvador, Guatemala, Colombia, Mexico, Chile, Brazil, and Venezuela. Professor Pearce has also developed a body of work around participation and exclusion in the global North, bringing learning from Latin America (South North learning) to the realities of urban conflict and tensions in the de-industrialised north of England.

She set up and directed the International Centre for Participation Studies in Peace Studies (2003 – 2014) and set up a Community University in Bradford with the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) and Joseph Rowntree Foundation funding in 2013. She was Visiting Professor at Edge Hill University between 2016-2019. She continues to work on participation and knowledge exchange with communities in the North of England.