University engagement as interconnectedness

African research that forms part of the Higher Education Research and Advocacy Network in Africa – HERANA – project has developed indicators to measure university-community engagement projects, to ascertain whether their activities are connected to the strategy of the institution, are linked to external constituents in a sustainable manner, feed into teaching and generate new knowledge.

Currently, most universities globally do not collect even basic data on community engagement activities. This lack of empirical evidence leaves many stakeholders in the dark about the nature and impact of university engagement activities.

Little wonder that this work is generally underfunded and oft-maligned in higher education.

And yet, university-community engagement harbours the potential to contribute to building stronger universities – in both teaching and research – and in so doing, to supporting the university’s contribution to development.


The university, in the guise of service provider only, will make at best a marginal, short-term contribution to development.

In fact, one could argue that civil society organisations and corporate social responsibility initiatives are better placed to deliver services to the community, that the state has an obligation to do so, and that the university would do better to partner with these entities to deliver services.

This would allow the university to maintain its focus on its key knowledge purpose.

Complicating matters is that engagement is, at best, a slippery concept. It means different things to different universities and stakeholders, and there is no single universal definition.

Service learning, outreach, community engagement, scholarly engagement, university-industry linkages, third mission and even the popularisation of science are examples of university-based activities that fall under the umbrella term of 'engagement.'.

Given that the concept of ‘engagement’ is highly contextual and therefore problematic when attempts are made to quantify, qualify or compare engagement-like activities, the concept of ‘interconnectedness’ is offered by HERANA as a way out of the ideological quagmire.

Interconnectedness describes the relationship (in tension) of academics engaging with those outside of the university while simultaneously linking back to the university.

Interconnectedness is operationalised along two dimensions: (1) articulation, which describes the extent to which engagement activities link to the university's strategic objectives and to external constituents in a sustainable manner, and (2) the academic core, which describes the extent to which engagement activities link to the university's functions of research, teaching and learning.

However, HERANA acknowledges that it is neither helpful nor sufficient to introduce the concept of interconnectedness into the already murky waters of engagement.

Interconnectedness needs to be quantified so that higher education stakeholders (including the state, steering bodies and funders) may glean the actual nature and impact of engagement activities on universities, in particular the extent to which engagement activities are impacting on the university as key knowledge producer.

Indicators of interconnectedness are therefore needed.

The research

The indicators I developed as part of the HERANA project could be used by universities to understand the impact that engagement work is having on universities. The research studied around 100 projects at Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University, or NMMU, in South Africa and Makerere University in Uganda.

The indicators and their graphical representation provide a useful tool for identifying patterns, and for revealing and confirming informative dimensions of university engagement activities at the two universities.

Both universities have expressed interest in using the indicators to record, track and assess their engagement activities. Future advocacy work that will form part of HERANA Phase 3 will seek to promote a broader acceptance of this methodology in African universities.

The findings of the study reveal a mixed picture at both universities – in both cases there are exemplary projects that can be described as interconnected and there are also projects that are clearly disconnected.

Articulation scores at both universities were higher than the academic core strengthening scores. However, the majority of engagement activities in the sample were ongoing, and this creates the possibility of these activities’ academic core ratings improving over time.

The interconnectedness of engagement activities appeared to be in alignment with the institutional type and focus of each of the two universities.

Engagement activities at NMMU, as a comprehensive university, showed more variation in the academic core scores, reflecting a mix of research and teaching and learning activities. There was also evidence of a strong residual culture of service learning and outreach-type engagement activities that fared poorly when it came to linking with research.

On the other hand at Makerere, with its drive to become a research-intensive university, there was evidence that engagement activities linked more consistently with research rather than with teaching and learning functions.

This research project suggests that engagement between university academics and those external to the university is active.

The nature of this engagement, however, varies considerably and – more portentously – based on the findings of this study, the degree to which such engagement activities can be said to be strengthening the university as a key knowledge producing institution is uneven and too frequently marginal.

Usefulness of the HERANA method

The usefulness and implications of the approach developed by this research project are numerous.

For example, if governments or donors fund engagement activities per se, they run the risk of funding non-productive engagement activities – that is, engagement activities that are poorly articulated and do not strengthen the core functions of the university.

Funding could be made contingent on university engagement activities linking back to the core functions of the university, and demonstrating a strong degree of articulation.

From this perspective, engagement funding would not be a separate line item; it would be a dimension of normal research (or teaching) funding, perhaps as ‘top-up’ funding for engagement activities that are able to demonstrate a high level of interconnectedness.

At the institutional level, research has found that while South African universities had a formally approved policy framework on engagement in place, conceptual clarity and a unified vision of how engagement should be integrated into the university’s activities eluded institutions.

This fuelled contestation and hampered alignment and integration of engagement policies with other institutional policies pertaining to research and teaching and learning.

The HERANA method based on computable indicators for university engagement, has the potential to shift the debate on how to integrate engagement from one that is dogged by entrenched and immutable ideological positions to one that is steered empirically.

Such a shift, in which institutional policy is empirically grounded and the activities of academics are quantified may, in turn, systematise the engagement activities of academics, in so doing reinforcing the institutionalisation of engagement in universities.

In Africa, university research often assumes the form of what would be considered by the HERANA project to constitute engagement. Such research is often made possible by funding from foreign donor agencies.

While such funding is primarily geared towards building the research capacity of African higher education and to building a relevant local knowledge base to drive innovation and development, it would be short-sighted if such funding inadvertently weakened the institutions they purported to capacitate.

The HERANA methodology for measuring and tracking the interconnectedness of university engagement activities could well be of benefit to donors as a means of assessing whether their grantees are successfully managing the tension between engaging and connecting to the academic core.

Such assessments could prove influential in the formulation of future funding policies.

* The full report is available here.

* The full dataset is available as open data here.

* François van Schalkwyk is an independent researcher linked to the Centre for Higher Education Transformation, CHET, in Cape Town. This article is based on presentations to the Talloires Network Leaders Conference 2014 held last week, and a conference held to launch HERANA III earlier this month