The community connection
The University’s impact is often considered in an international context. Claire Simpson looks closer to home to explore the mutually beneficial relationship with the local community of which staff, students and many alumni are members.
When Robert and Nathan Gale had some good news to celebrate, they did what any other couple would do and hit the town to enjoy a few drinks. Except their night out in Glasgow came to an abrupt end when the pair were refused entry to a popular nightclub, one they’d enjoyed visiting many times before.
They weren’t wearing the wrong shoes. They weren’t displaying the signs of too much alcohol consumption, or threatening to start a fight with anyone. In fact they weren’t breaking any rules at all. Robert and Nathan were told they couldn’t come into this particular night spot because they were disabled and the venue didn’t have any facilities to accommodate wheelchair users.
The couple tried to persuade staff to reconsider. Robert, who has cerebral palsy, crawled up the stairs to prove that he didn’t need a wheelchair ramp, and after door staff refused to let Nathan take his wheelchair to him, Robert took up residence on the club floor. The nightclub staff responded by calling the police and the Gales never did get to enjoy those celebratory drinks.
However, Nathan, who is an equality campaigner and a graduate of the University of Edinburgh’s Diploma in Professional Legal Practice, quickly recognised that the actions of the nightclub were not just unfair but potentially in breach of the Equality Act 2010.
Nathan’s time as an Edinburgh diploma student had given the graduate the opportunity to volunteer with the Free Legal Advice Centre (FLAC), a student-led service at the University that offers free legal help and advice to members of the local Edinburgh community. It was FLAC Nathan turned to for advice.
FLAC has been operating at the University since 2007 and is run by students, with support from Law School staff and representatives from some of Edinburgh’s legal firms. It is not only a source of quality free legal advice for members of the public who may not otherwise be able to access such help, but also gives Diploma students the opportunity to develop their legal skills and experience.
“Thanks to the wonderful staff and students who run FLAC we were able to seek justice.”
When Nathan brought their story to FLAC, the centre’s volunteers referred the case to the Faculty of Advocates’ Free Legal Services Unit (FLSU). The Gales decided to take legal action against G1 Group, owners of the night club, represented by FLSU advocate Russell Bradley with support from FLAC student volunteers David Gray and Kirsty McGeough acting as instructing solicitors.
“The support we received from FLAC was incredible,” says Nathan. “If they had not given us such encouragement I honestly don’t think we would have pursued our discrimination case. Thanks to the wonderful staff and students who run FLAC my partner and I were able to seek justice for the terrible discrimination that we suffered.”
Their case turned out to be a landmark one. It is one of a small number of civil cases seen in Scotland under the Equality Act relating to access to commercial premises for disabled people, and they won. The Glasgow Sheriff Court ruled that the couple had been discriminated against and G1 was ordered to pay £2,000 in compensation, after the nightclub owner’s legal representatives agreed to the decree.
Of course not all cases or issues that are brought to FLAC are as high profile, but the story demonstrates that the guidance the student volunteers are able to provide can make a critical difference to individuals who may have limited access to legal services.
In a typical year the Centre will see more than 180 clients who present a variety of legal issues, most commonly housing problems and family law disputes. The Centre also provides guidance on debt, consumer law, employment, IT, planning and wills.
FLAC provides important training for Edinburgh Diploma students who are en route to qualifying as lawyers. FLAC Director Rebecca MacKenzie (LLB 2003), who also oversees the provision of the Diploma in Professional Legal Practice at the University, is a passionate advocate for student involvement in the Centre to help develop civic-minded legal professionals.
“Any institution should be engaging with its local community in as many ways as it can.”
“I am a great believer that pro bono work should be promoted as a professional value and students should be encouraged to develop a sense of duty to ensure access to justice not just at university but also throughout their professional career,” says Rebecca. “Indeed many of our volunteer solicitors were previously students at the University and they return to help because they want to remain involved and give something back to the community.”
This connection between legal training and community outreach is part of the wider context of the University’s place in the city of Edinburgh. With 35,000 students, 13,000 staff and 37,000 graduates having an Edinburgh postcode, people linked directly to the University amount to a substantial proportion of the Scottish capital’s 490,000 population. The University of Edinburgh, while projecting an international image, has always played a central role in the life of its host city. Its staff, students and alumni have a profound impact locally that is perhaps sometimes overshadowed by achievements on the global stage.
A service run by Dr Andrew Gardiner (BVM&S Clinical Veterinary Studies 1992) is one such project that benefits the local community.
Andrew, a Senior Lecturer and researcher at Edinburgh’s Royal (Dick) School of Veterinary Studies, first got involved with volunteering when he was a veterinary student at Edinburgh. At weekends he helped at the animal charity PDSA.
“I’m really keen on primary care and community animal health and welfare, and also animals and humans on the periphery, however you see that, as well as social accountability and how that translates into veterinary medicine and looking at the human-animal bond,” he says.
So when the Vet School was bequeathed an endowment with the condition that the money should be used to help look after animals belonging to homeless people, Andrew was a strong candidate to take a project forward. Around the same time, staff from Dunedin Harbour hostel approached the Vet School seeking advice on handling the pets of the hostel’s homeless residents. Andrew responded by setting up a project to run regular vet clinics at the hostel.
Dunedin Harbour is one of only two Edinburgh homeless hostels that allow pets, and Andrew was already familiar with the homeless centre through a documentary Sleeping Ruff created by two of his friends, Susi Arnott and Stephen Blakeway. The film charts the close bond between Edinburgh’s rough sleepers and their pets, and highlights that for many homeless individuals their pets offer companionship, security and a sense of purpose in what can be an isolated existence.
Unfortunately, this attachment to their animals can limit the options for shelter for many homeless people. The vast majority of homeless hostels in the UK refuse to take animals. Dunedin is an exception, and Andrew’s clinics play an important role in supporting the hostel to continue this policy.
Andrew visits on a regular basis to deliver preventative veterinary services such as vaccination, worming and micro-chipping, as well as giving advice on animal health, welfare and behaviour. His colleague Amy Jennings runs similar clinics at another hostel in the city centre.
Andrew is keen to integrate his outreach work into his teaching, and students often join him at the hostel clinics, and are now working with him to expand the service by offering additional pop-up clinics.
His connections to East Lothian charity Fostering Compassion have opened up further opportunities for students to get involved with volunteering. Fostering Compassion works with at-risk and vulnerable children to encourage them to develop empathy and compassion for animals by offering animal- and nature-themed workshops that run throughout the year.
Recently, a group of veterinary students designed and hosted a workshop at the clinical skills lab at the Dick Vet in Easter Bush.
“It was one of the best workshops we’ve had and the children had a ball,” says Fostering Compassion founder Lesley Winton. “To be able to work with the veterinary students in this way is an invaluable opportunity for the children that they wouldn’t ordinarily get.”
For Andrew, who was the 2015 recipient of the Prinicipal’s Medal for Service to the Community, being involved in the community in this way is an important role for any university.
He says: “We’ve got some of the world’s leading specialists here, in all sorts of disciplines, so I think it’s good that the Vet School works at the grass roots level as well. I feel that’s part of what a university is about and any institution should be engaging with its local community in as many ways as it can.”
Projects that give back
Staff and students participate in countless projects that “give back” to the University’s host city. Among the more well known and permanently established are the Hope Park Counselling Centre and the Music in the Community programme.
Hope Park Counselling Centre
The University’s Hope Park Counselling Centre provides counselling to people over the age of 16 living in Edinburgh, offering time to work through personal issues or difficulties that are causing distress. It is a practice and research centre for qualified counsellors and counsellors in training.
The service is provided by volunteer counsellors from a variety of backgrounds and cultures. Ability to pay does not affect access to counselling, and clients are asked to donate between £2 and £30 per session. Sessions last 50 minutes and are arranged with the same counsellor each week for periods of six, eight or 12 weeks initially.
Music in the Community
The Reid School of Music has been offering the Music in the Community course to students for many years. Students respond to the community’s needs and engage with a range of community groups, including schools, adult training centres and hospitals.
Students are able to broaden their musical knowledge and skills as well as learn about the usefulness and limitations of music in a variety of community and therapeutic situations.
Among the highlights of 2015 was a project with children from Leith Walk Primary School working on Watching, an opera about the crucial role of sleep in people’s lives. The children performed the opera at dusk in March at the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh.