Engagement in its broadest sense refers to the relationships that universities have with their stakeholders, including industry, government, community, professions, staff, students and alumni. However, contemporary usage of the term in the higher education sector has a more specific focus, referring to how universities interact with their stakeholder communities in the exchange of knowledge for mutual benefit.
The Strategic Intent clearly positions the University as being focused on particular geographic stakeholder communities. The University Plan further highlights the need for deliberative engagement with the identification of engagement as one of the three elements of our core business. However, there is a need to scaffold this strategic vision of an engaged university into an overarching strategy that acknowledges current engagement activities, builds on the fact that engagement takes place at all levels within the institution (individual through to the University in a corporate sense), and supports specific strategic initiatives, particularly at school, faculty and whole-of-institution levels.
The University’s planning documents focus on certain stakeholders due, for example, to geographic location, educational strengths and community need. However, further definition is required, including some prioritisation of stakeholder groups, and this should be aligned with our teaching and research agendas. There are benefits for the University as a whole in answering such issues; attention to engagement can lead to stronger institutional intent, and, consequently, more specific and focused agendas for research and teaching (Holland, 2005: 7).
There are excellent examples of engagement activities currently in place within individual faculties and schools as well as divisions and within local campus communities, although the effectiveness of these may be limited by the lack of University-wide coordination and perhaps an inability to leverage other opportunities. Through the development of a University-wide engagement strategy we will move toward a future described in the Enterprising Revolutionary scenario, wherein staff knowledge and know how is brought together to “enable collaboration and an outward facing stance to University activities.”
With the establishment of engagement as one of the three areas of core business there is a corresponding need to consider the governance arrangements that will foster and advocate the engagement strategy of the University.
That a University-wide engagement strategy be developed to provide a framework for engagement across our core business.
There are several models within Australia and overseas that are worthy of consideration. As well as enriching the learning experience for students, these models encourage the development of meaningful and purposeful partnerships with community, industry, employers and other partners. They will also allow us to emphasise partnerships and opportunities that are consistent with identified grand challenges.
Examples of such initiatives include:
The Community University Partnership Program offered at Brighton University. This program seeks to ‘to tackle disadvantage and promote sustainable development through partnership working. We share a strong belief in the potential for communities and universities to work together. Their combined resources have been seen to make a tangible difference to the effectiveness of the community sectors, the quality of university education and research and the lives of local people.’ The strength in this model is that it allows for a seamless interface between community, industry, employers and all facets of University activity.
The Campus Engage Project at the National University of Galway Ireland has a distinctive focus on community and volunteering.
The Green Steps Project at Monash University combines work-integrated learning and sustainability.
The implementation of a program similar to those listed above is supported by market research conducted by the Knowledge Partnership for the Curriculum Refresh Project, which indicated that students and prospective students supported the integration of issues relevant to the tropics through fieldwork and practical applications. The potential to offer a joined-up program across our three tropical campuses should be investigated.
That work-integrated and practice-based learning opportunities for students be consolidated and extended.
The recognition by researchers that so many complex research problems are deeply embedded in socio-economic contexts, along with Government scepticism with adequacy of the return on investment and public concerns in regard to the integrity of science, is driving imperatives for researchers and research organisations to engage with the community (including general public, interest groups, governments, stakeholders and media) in more dynamic and open ways. Increased engagement with industry and end users will also improve opportunities for industry funded and collaborative research. We should also consider opportunities to develop closer partnerships between industry and university-based researchers, including the Industrial Transformation Research Program administered by the ARC.
A move to iterative processes where end-users have a stronger role in framing research questions is increasingly accepted by researchers – particularly younger researchers – with a shift in view towards institutions as intrinsic to practice and not as an external constraint on practice. It is possible that a program could be developed whereby our stakeholders, including the local community, are invited to suggest possible research questions/projects so as to build both University engagement and demand-side capabilities. Plymouth University offers a program of this kind.
That research which is impactful, relevant and translatable be fostered through engagement with industry, professions, community end-users and policy makers.
Engagement and translational activity is not a substitute for excellent, fit-for-purpose research, but an extension of it. Over the long term, translational work without an excellent base will lack credibility and influence.