Building community research partnerships worldwide

Structures to facilitate research partnerships globally have been in existence for up to 150 years, but there is an uneven spread of models across a wider range of higher education institutions as new partnerships have emerged in recent years, a comparative study to identify challenges and propose solutions has revealed.

Global Trends in Support Structures for Community University Research Partnerships was presented at the Talloires Network Leaders Conference held in Stellenbosch, outside Cape Town, from 2-4 December.

The multilingual research was conducted into community-university research partnerships from January to March 2014 through global network partners by the UNESCO Chair in Community Based Research and Social Responsibility in Higher Education.

The UNESCO chair is co-led by Dr Budd Hall of the school of public administration at the University of Victoria in Canada, and Dr Rajesh Tandon of the Society for Participatory Research in Asia, a civil society organisation based in India.

The study aimed to understand how research partnerships are initiated, supported and evaluated through a comparative study of different types within universities and communities.

There was a desire to promote awareness of the importance of creating enabling structures among decision-makers in higher education institutions in the global South, with the hope of creating appropriate structures in countries through the identification of different practices.

Community-university research partnerships

Crystal Tremblay, a post-doctoral fellow at the University of British Columbia and research coordinator for the UNESCO Chair in Community Based Research and Social Responsibility in Higher Education, said this was the first global survey known to examine structures for facilitating community-university research partnerships.

“By structures we mean the existence or creation of administrative or organisational models such as Science Shops, community-university partnership programmes, services aux collectivites, research mobilisation offices or many other names of research partnership services,” she told University World News.

Community-university research partnerships can take many forms.

They may be academic knowledge put to the service of the community, joint university and community partnerships in identifying research problems, research generated in community settings without formal academic links, or research under the full control of community or non-university groups.

Tremblay said these exist both within higher education institutions and within civil society as independent research partnership bodies such as the Society for Participatory Research in Asia, the Bonn Science Shop and the Centre for Community-Based Research in Canada.

Community-university research partnerships are one element in the larger picture of higher education engagement, she said.

Study findings

The study looked at the state of community research partnerships, those in pre-formal structures and mechanisms of engagement, to reveal challenges towards the institutionalisation of partnerships.

There were 366 responses received from 53 countries, covering each world region and capturing a diversity of engagement from around the world – North and South.

Tremblay said the biggest surprise was that, at least among respondents to the study, some forms of facilitative research partnership structures had been in place for a longer time and across a wider range of higher education institutions than previously thought.

The University of Quebec in Montreal, the Science Shops in the Netherlands and structures in some South African universities had been around for 30 to 40 years. The United States land grant institutions claimed a heritage of 150 years, she said.

This meant that the distribution of community research models was not uniform, with some new structures being created in the past year or two and others much earlier, even though over 60% of higher education institutions were identified as having created some support for community-university research partners within the last 10 years, she said.

There seems to be consensus that if community-based research is to be mainstreamed, institutional investment in structures to support and facilitate academic research interests and community interests is a key step forward, she said.

And support is needed to allow for brokering of interests, visibility of community-based work, bridging across disciplines and credit for academic career development for this kind of work.

“There is, we suggest, an emerging or a continuing contradiction between professed commitment to co-construction of knowledge and partnerships with communities on the part of university-based scholars, and the actual practice of doing community-based research, which has to do with the origins of projects, sharing of resources and building of community capacities,” Tremblay said.

A significant finding of the study is that when discussing the origins of recent research projects or questions, in less than 15% of cases research questions or projects originated at the civil society or community level, which dealt a blow to the co-construction of knowledge and partnership between universities and communities, she said.

These initiatives largely take a top-down approach initiated by higher education institutions.

Need for more equity in partnerships

“There is an expressed need for building community capacity to play equitable roles in research partnerships. Being an equal player in knowledge creation means having the time and specialised skills.

“Civil society organisations need equal opportunity in terms of resources and time to both co-create meaningful work and have the space to reflect on and build capacity within their organisations,” said Tremblay.

According to the study, while civil society organisations were engaged in the decision-making process, with higher active participation in networking and framing the research agenda, they were less involved in the administration of research funding and data analysis.

Over 60% of civil society organisations do not have access to library and academic funding opportunities, and 95% of respondents believed that the co-creation of knowledge was the primary goal in community-university research partnerships.

There is a strong interest in the provision of training of community-based researchers and community-based participatory research.

The knowledge culture between civil society organisations and higher education institutions differed vastly. Civil society organisations look for concrete issues affecting communities while academics write in a way that is not always understandable to outsiders.

There was a call for more transparency to nurture respectful partnerships.

Relative apathy in civil society and community organisations to partner higher education institutions owing to past difficulties to move beyond rhetoric resulted in more than 25% of respondents being dissatisfied with the governance structure of research partnerships.

Civil society organisations were also unhappy with community review processes for funding and ethics.

The case for research partnerships

George Ladaah Openjuru, deputy vice-chancellor of Gulu University in Uganda and the leader of the Ugandan study at Makerere University, said they were keen to see how university structures might meaningfully contribute to research partnerships.

“The third mission of universities is provide services to the community, but to implement that has always been a challenge.

“With this new movement we are trying to drive community-university research partnerships into the mainstream and we are asking, what structures have been in existence at our local universities? what is their agenda with industries?” he told University World News.

Openjuru said that they would scrutinise the strategic plans of universities and resource plans for community-university research partnerships, and how programme structure catered for student engagement with communities and what weight it carried in the curriculum.

Tremblay told University World News that they were not aware of any comparative study that looked at the emergence of new institutional arrangements to facilitate and support community university research partnerships on a global basis in any part of the world.

“There is a severe underestimate of the skills and time required to jointly develop a research question for the most impact in the community.

“While new administrative structures have emerged to deal with this issue in some universities, most universities do not yet have a dedicated institutional capacity to facilitate community-university research partnerships.”

Tremblay said that the study addressed a number of big questions, not only pertaining to institutional structures but also the relationship between public and private needs.

What kind of impact have they had on local or regional issues? What are the challenges faced by the different knowledge cultures working together? And what are the methodological lessons to be learned?

The NextGen

She said that in responding to some methodological challenges raised by the study, the UNESCO chair and partners launched a two-year research programme on training and teaching in community-based research, called The NextGen.

The partners included the Society for Participatory Research in Asia, the Institute for Resources, Environment and Sustainability at the University of British Columbia, the Institute for Studies and Innovation in Community University Engagement at the University of Victoria, and the Coady International Institute at Saint Francis Xavier University.

Tremblay said 14 country case studies highlighting where national policy for supporting partnerships already exists – such as in Canada, the Netherlands and Argentina – and those countries where such policies are in the making and there is potential for institutionalisation – such as in Uganda, Korea and Ireland – were being finalised.

An open-source e-handbook to help develop an understanding of how research partnerships are initiated, supported and evaluated, through a comparative study of different types of institutional arrangements, will be published after the study.