There is an increasing interest in how universities engage with their communities and how they can work with partners, groups and individuals to undertake projects of mutual benefit. Despite this renewed focus on the role of Higher Education in society, engagement between university and local communities has a long history. In the UK, relationships between universities and communities have evolved along with the growth of student numbers and expectations on academics to share their learning. This article looks at what the motivation or drivers for universities to undertake such work are, or whether it is the role of higher education to deliver these activities at a time of great change in higher education. With increasing calls for university-community engagement that delivers mutual benefit, this article explores the idea of university-community engagement to consider which stakeholder, if any, is the beneficiary of such activity, arguing that too little is known about the outcomes for all parties to say if there is any benefit in university-community engagement at all.
Higher Education’s (HE) attempts to work with wider society date back to the very origins of universities (Watson, 2007). How it the work is undertaken or described differs greatly (Robinson F, Zass-Ogilvie I, and Hudson R, 2012).
This type of activity between wider society and Higher Education has various descriptions including university-public engagement’; ‘community–university collaboration’; university– community engagement’; and public engagement’ or action research, community engagement, public participation, citizen science, civic engagement and service learning (Hart & Northmore, 2011).Essentially, this type of work is said to be undertaken for mutual benefit of the local community and the university, staff and students. (NCCPE, 2015).
There is increased interest in how universities contribute to society (Watson, 2007), but relationships between universities and communities to work together for the common good are not new.
One of Europe’s oldest academic institutions, the University of Bologna undertook work with its communities to research laws to protect its regions against threats to their freedoms from emerging empires and religions in the 11th century (University of Bologna, 2015).
In Great Britain, Higher Education also saw its purpose to contribute to communities by sharing knowledge, as early mission statements of universities demonstrate.
Elizabeth de Burgh (pictured), Lady Clare, founder of Clare College, Cambridge in 1359 set out a ‘mission statement’ that: “through their study and teaching at the University the scholars should discover and acquire the precious pearl of learning so that it does not stay hidden under a bushel but is displayed abroad to enlighten those who walk in the dark paths of ignorance.”
The Papal Bull of Innocent VIII establishing the University of Aberdeen in 1495 wrote that: “In the northern parts of the kingdom the people are ignorant and almost barbarous owing to their distance from a university. The city is near these places and suitable for a university, where all lawful faculties could be taught to both ecclesiastics and laymen, who would thus acquire the most precious pearl of knowledge, and so promote the well-being of the kingdom and the salvation of souls” (Watson, 2009).
The idea of sharing knowledge with communities developed further in the United Kingdom when a form of university-community outreach in England began in Cambridge, in 1867.
James Stuart of Trinity College inaugurated a series of innovative lecture tours in manufacturing towns and cities (Trinity College Chapel, 2015).
A few years later, the university extension movement was developed, which sought to share teaching and knowledge with a goal of making academic education accessible to the poor (University of Oxford, Department for Continuing Education, 2015).
By the mid-1880s, Higher Educations settlements were reaching out to deprived inner-city communities offering education and gaining knowledge about the urban poor of that time (Institute for Voluntary Action Research, 2010).
(Anderson, 2010) These settlements in cities across England created what would later be seen as early activities modern of social work (Younghusband, 1981).
In this context, it could be argued that, universities have always attempted to connect with communities in some way, share knowledge and learn from the experiences (Cunningham, 2009).
But whether universities were solely committed to benefitting these poor communities is contested. It is argued that the language and activities used by academics and their commentators was not one demonstrating a commitment to working with communities as Duke (2009) notes: “the university is taking something, perhaps some quite small part, of its riches out from a rather closed scholarly community, on its own terms, to a wider audience or, as we would now say, clientele” and the “notion of (learning) partner(ship) was uncommon.”
How a university should share its knowledge with its communities, if at all, raises questions about what universities are for.
Cardinal John Newman’s famous work “the Idea of the University” called for the pursuit of knowledge for knowledge’s sake, in the belief that a well-educated graduate will make a significant contribution to society over time. This differs from the Wilhelm von Humbolt’s vision of a university combining teaching and research – a model widely adopted across Europe. Neither visions place engaging with communities at the heart of the university mission but have a shared aim of benefitting to society through creating knowledge (History and Policy, 2010).
There is an argument that there are three essential purposes of a modern university.
The first is to act as a repository of accumulated knowledge and interpret it in the present context. Secondly, universities must pass on humanity’s accumulated knowledge to younger generations, and thirdly, universities must add to the sum of all knowledge through research (Nossal, 2007).
Universities may address all these aims in different ways with a multitude of other roles to fulfill including public engagement, economic development and social mobility (Burnes, Wend & Todnem, 2013).
In the 1950s, modern, civic universities in Great Britain were being operated to benefit their communities to respond to their needs. (Anderson, 2010).
The civic institutions were governed by prominent local figureheads to support their communities and ‘their purpose was learning, not primarily for learning’s sake, but in order to enhance the competitiveness of local industry and commerce’. (Bernard B, Wend P and Todnem R, 2013).
Over time this purpose evolved with an emphasis on teaching excellence, research, wealth creation and establishing ‘long-term, sustainable relationships with employers to stimulate and meet their demands for highly competent and skilled employees’ (HEFCE, 2011).
The creation of civic universities and polytechnics coincided with a fundamental change in student numbers entering Higher Education.
The publication of the Robbins Report in 1963 recommended that Higher Education should be available to all who were qualified by ability or attainment. This sparked a trend that saw graduate numbers increase ten-fold (Wyness 2010).
This growth saw a shift in the purpose of what universities were for further away from Newman’s idea and further towards serving the needs of the economy and focus on solving practical problems (Dearlove 1995).
Since then there has been ‘an international convergence’ of interest on issues about the purposes of universities and colleges and their role in wider society’ (Watson, 2007).
This convergence revolves around the twin themes of the benefits to both universities and communities of scholarly engagement and the benefits to society more generally from the civic impacts of engagement.
Communities, businesses and individuals can draw on the knowledge and expertise of universities to address ‘real world’ issues, while engagement initiatives can shape university research agendas and enhance student learning (Alter, 2005).
However, since the introduction of a new Higher Education funding system in the United Kingdom where students pay up to £9,000 fees, some feel that Higher Education’s priorities are changing again with universities focusing more time and money in marketing and delivery of an outstanding learning experience (McGettigan, 2013).
Under the new funding system, universities are needing to find ways to respond to the priorities identified by their students (Universities UK, 2013). At the same time, there are already calls for universities to return to civic values of serving community needs and reinstate public benefits of Higher Education (McGettigan, 2013) at a time when there is an increased interest in how universities contribute to communities, wider society and beyond (OECD, 2007).
There have been a number of recommendations that universities take greater responsibilities for their communities, locally and regionally in major inquiries into Higher Education in modern times.
The Dearing Report (1997) stated that one of the purposes of Higher Education was to: ‘serve the needs of an adaptable, sustainable, knowledge-based economy at local, regional and national levels’ (Dearing, 1997).
The author and chair of the review committee, Lord Dearing, noted that universities had taken on an importance in local and regional context that could not have been foreseen at the time of an earlier inquiry in to Higher Education, known as the Robbins Report in 1963, and reflected the centrality of higher education to the future economic and social wellbeing of communities.
The Dearing Report stated that each locality and region needed the engagement of Higher Education and alongside working with local authorities and communities for economic benefit there would be an increasing need for institutions to provide programmes that respond specifically to local social and economic needs for lifelong learning and continue to play a part of the cultural life of their communities.
The Dearing Report recommended that local engagement should be a clear element in the role of Higher Education over the next 20 years and each institution be clear about its mission in relation to local communities.
The report also asked that universities have in place mechanisms through which community interests could be taken into account in decision-making.
Despite only some recommendations of the Dearing Report being adopted, particularly those around the funding of Higher Education (The Guardian, 2007), universities on the whole have made significant contributions to their locality in modern times (HEFCE, 2010).
However, universities remain largely autonomous in how they choose to work with communities (Hart & Wolff, 2006).
In an nterviewed in the Guardian Newspaper 10 years after his report was published, Lord Dearing conceded that his review did not do enough to explore Higher Education’s role in communities far enough: “…we might have done more to develop a relationship between parents, employers, students and government at local, regional and national level; between universities and society,” he said. (The Guardian, 2007)
There are significant contributions being made to communities in the United Kingdom despite a counter-argument that “supporting disadvantaged communities is not really the business of universities” and some academics and university managers feel that universities should not get involved in social problems (Robinson F, Zass-Ogilvie I, and Hudson R, 2012) at all.
Key engagement drivers have been the will of the institutions to work with local partners, encouragement by HE funding bodies, research councils and commitment to Widening Participation in HE (Robinson F, Zass-Ogilvie I, and Hudson R, 2012).
Since 2012, a £9,000 a year fees system in 2012, paid through a loan system by students, has been introduced.
greater regulation in Higher Education, largely to reflect changing in funding and create a more student-centred approached to HE delivery (Universities UK, 2015).
Recommendations include, increasing commitment to enhance the social and cultural life of communities and delivering diverse activities that meet the needs of students, businesses and the wider community (Universities UK, 2015).
This call supports the idea that universities could do more to contribute to civic life and communities in many ways (Robinson F, Zass-Ogilvie I, and Hudson R, 2012).
Research councils are recognised as helping to drive Higher Education’s contribution to communities by increasingly seeking community engagement as a condition of granting research funding
For example, Research Councils UK, a group of 7 UK funding bodies in the UK, now has a strategy that includes a number of collective interventions or objectives for researchers in receipt of funding grants which include supporting collaborative and co-produced research such as citizen science (where communities are seen as co-researchers), facilitating cultural change within universities and higher education to ensure public engagement is embedded with their processes and policies; ensuring public attitudes are considered by researchers and feed into their work; connecting young people with research and researchers (Research Councils UK, 2015).
The National Co-coordinating Centre for Public Engagement (NCCPE), funded by the four UK Funding Councils, Research Councils UK and the Wellcome Trust, helps inspire and support universities to engage with the public that aims to seek to support a culture change in the Higher Education sector through its vision, mission and aims of a higher education sector to be ‘making a vital, strategic and valued contribution to 21st-century society through its public engagement activity.’ which benefits communities by sharing knowledge (NCCPE, 2015).
It should also be recognised that many academics and students do elect to work with communitiesto improve research and learning outcomes (Robinson F, Zass-Ogilvie I, and Hudson R, 2012).
There is an argument that universities are regularly making significant contributions to their communities in many ways through involvement with local organisations, student volunteering and widening participation programmes, and also through their teaching and research activities but this is under-reported. (HEFCE, 2010)
Some universities, particularly in the US, see staff and students engaging with communities between as contributing to teaching and learning (Goddard, 2009)
Some academics believe there are great advantages in community engagement and that policy makers should set the direction for this. (Boyer, 1996)
This lack of definition, however, is also considered a strength rather than a limitation, engendering local debate as to what engagement might mean in different contexts to give universities the opportunity to interpret community engagement through the context of a university’s history, locations, and strategic position (NCCPE, 2011).
Some academics support the ideas of Ernest Boyer who promoted a new model for higher education that brought the idea of community engagement as a central mission for 21st-century universities to the fore.
Boyer’s model involves undergraduates engaging with social issues, extending classrooms into communities, balancing theory and practice, promoting an integrated view of knowledge, and, ultimately, expands the nature of scholarly work. His work led to critical examination of how community involvement can change the nature of faculty work, enhance student learning, better fulfill campus mission, and improve the quality of life in communities (Bringle, 2007).
Some institutions can also use their positions in their cities to attempt to tackle areas of social inequality or social exclusion by leading the debate on how change should be achieved (Robinson, 2012).
There is an argument that universities should be strongly connected to local people and to their locality to create prosperity and wellbeing. In the context of a national HE system it should be a matter for all universities to work to achieve this.
It is suggested some HE syllabuses need a rethink because it is possible for a student to achieve a good degree without engaging with real world challenges.
This appears to be the case with the American definition of university-civic engagement and outreach set out by the US Association of Public and Land Grant Universities. US universities are much clearer about their missions to their communities on local, national, European and world scales (Goddard, 2009).
Furthermore, as huge multi-million pound organisations, universities have a moral and ethical duty to social responsibility.
Not all sections of society have reaped the benefits of science and research advancements. According to the United Nations Organization for : “no longer continue to stand aloof and disconnected but, rather, must create opportunities and become spaces of encounter where students and communities of the 21st century can learn together to become more active, engaged citizens in the creation of knowledge for a more just and sustainable world”. A group of university Vice-Chancellors who have committed their institutions to improving community engagement and civic contributions say such activity should be measured via league tables. (World University News, 2014).
The ‘call to action’ was made by vice-chancellors in The Talloires Network, an international association of institutions committed to strengthening the civic roles and social responsibilities of higher education to build a global movement of engaged universities. There are currently 346 Talloires Network members in 75 countries around the world including 14 from the UK.
The members are committed to evaluating and ranking community engagement work. (The Talloires Network, 2015).
At a time of great change in Higher Education and during a tough economic environment such evaluation could enhance the community’s and university’s capacity to create engagement for mutual benefit (Hart, 2010)
How useful university community engagement is at delivering mutual benefits is unclear as evaluation and dissemination of this engagement work has been largely neglected. (Hart, 2010)
Little research has been done into the value of universities to their communities beyond economic impact (Robinson, 2012).
However there is some evidence to suggest that the major beneficiaries of university-community engagement, or partnership, are the university, its staff and students.
In a report by the University of Cambridge (2004), the pros of working with its community in outreach, engagement and research projects to the institution, staff and students were notable.
Benefits ranged from communicating the University’s work to the public, maintaining good relationships with communities, providinglearning and personal development opportunities for students and staff. The outreach also led to new opportunities for learning and research, opportunities to challengenegative perceptions about Cambridge being elitistand improve recruitment, retention and diversity of students and staff.
University volunteers delivering projects saw improvements in media skills, first aid and health and safety, communication, project planning, practical skills, language skills, financial planning, teamwork and management skills (University of Cambridge, 2004).
However, the report did not evaluate the impact of the university’s engagement activities on the community, other than to say that nearly 500,000 people took part in its community programmes.
A report by NCCPE to encourages universities to engage with communities by highlighting the benefits as ‘enriching the institution’s research, teaching and learning, demonstrating improve the quality of work undertaken in universities, have academic thinking broadened or challenged by different ideas, boost the curriculum in numerous ways and demonstrate accountability in a climate of increasing scrutiny as well as strengthening the university’s brand and identity to increase appreciation and support for higher education’ (NCCPE, 2015).
A further detailed list of benefits of community engagement to university staff was also produced by umbrella group Research Councils UK including, skills development, enhancing your research quality and its impact, new research perspectives, networking opportunities and new collaborations and partnerships among at the findings.
In this context, there is a strong argument for community engagement having greater reward for the university than the community. (Research Councils UK, 2015).
Research also suggests more than half of 51 per cent of recent graduates under 30 years old who are in paid work say that community engagement through volunteering helped them to secure employment (NCCPE, 2010) and student volunteers report many positive impacts on their own personal development, skills and employability and identified the opportunity to burst out of the student ‘bubble’ as one of the most valued aspects of volunteering.
There is also an argument that university-community engagement sees the university takes too much of the benefit and not enough emphasis is put on outcomes for participants.
Conceptualisations of service learning have been intertwined with an imperialist ideology where “the relationships of power are apparent and problematic for participation – suggesting that participation in projects can be a mechanism for rendering the poor more powerless.” (Hammersley 2012)
Other critics also question this claim of a “mutual” benefit of engagement (Stoecker & Tyron: 2009) and say there is a lack of research to support claimsthat the community actually benefits from learning and engagement.
It is argued engagement needs to be reimagined to incorporate the unheard voices of community partnerships.
There are also many claims of the positive impact that service learning has on communities but there is much less research to back up those claims (Cruz and Giles, 2000).
One of the major challenges facing universities is how to engage communities and individuals who are least likely to have had a formal relationship with higher education in a way that embodies genuine reciprocity.(Hart 2011)
By doing this successfully there is an argument that universities tend to see better outcomes in civically engaged communities – through greater numbers of participants and data gathering (Putnam, 1995).
However not enough is being done to ensure that positive outcomes or experiences for communities are being achieved. Development of effective audit and evaluation tools for university public engagement is still at a formative stage. There are lots of reports and reflections promoting the idea that public engagement is being achieved but with little or no detail about the actual involvement or impact. There is also little published material specific to the audit and evaluation of public perspectives on community–university engagement (Hart, 2010).
Universities have a long history of attempting to share knowledge with their local communities and beyond. Some of the earliest work led to ideas of mutual benefit between the two parties.
There are many motivations for universities, staff and students to work with external partners from long-held civic missions, expectations from research funders to boosting undergraduate career prospects that has enabled many positive relationships between Higher Education and wider society.
Much of the evidence of who really benefits from engagement points to the university, particularly outcomes of increased profile, research data-gathering and student learning experiences.
However, these are easy assumptions to make as little evaluation, or consideration, has been given to measure outcomes for participants.
In order to ensure that universities fulfill commitments to wider society, at a time of increased focus, those involved with Higher Education should consider they ensure community engagement is serving the best interests of all involved.
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