A European framework for community engagement in HE?

Community engagement is emerging as a policy priority in higher education, reflecting increasing pressure on universities to demonstrate how they deliver public benefits.

With the (re)emergence of the community engagement agenda, there is a need to develop a framework for community engagement in higher education to support universities in institutionalising their cooperation with the wider community so they can address pressing societal needs and can show policy-makers the value of such engagement.

However, there have not yet been any initiatives at the European Higher Education Area (EHEA) or the European Union level that have focused exclusively on community engagement.

A new consortium of European universities, local authorities and university networks gathered under the umbrella of an Erasmus+ funded project named TEFCE aims to fill this gap and support university managers, practitioners and policy-makers by developing a ‘European Framework for Community Engagement in Higher Education’.

Mutually beneficial cooperation

Community engagement is a process whereby universities engage with community stakeholders to undertake joint activities that should be mutually beneficial.

Rather than being framed as a question of moral or social responsibility, the engagement of universities with communities brings tangible benefits to the university’s knowledge process and university knowledge helps community partners to fulfil their needs.

There should be co-determination and interdependence between the university and community through open dialogue that allows societal partners to meaningfully inform the decisions of university actors. Innovative practices, such as service-learning, science shops, community-based research and citizen science are some of the mutual benefits that community engagement can bring.

‘Community’ refers to a broad range of external university stakeholders, but with an emphasis on those with fewer resources. Universities engage regularly and systematically with businesses and policy-makers, but have far more difficulty engaging with NGOs, social enterprises or other civil society organisations that do not have the resources to easily engage with universities.

Those less privileged stakeholders should therefore be considered the primary beneficiaries of community engagement.

Universities’ core mission

Community engagement in higher education works best when it is embedded in teaching and research and ingrained in universities’ institutional culture, rather than being considered a ‘third mission’ that represents an additional (and often peripheral) activity on top of teaching and research.

This can happen through a range of other activities, including knowledge exchange and service and student- and staff-led initiatives as well as through support from university management.

There is no ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach to community engagement. It must always be context-specific. Different places have different histories of university engagement, different cultures and different communities.

Community engagement also varies according to academic discipline. It is therefore important that academic staff retain the autonomy to determine how best to organise their community engagement activities.


Policy priorities in higher education still focus on excellence and global league tables and do not encourage community engagement.

The focus of universities’ activities has been increasingly on forms of engagement that have more tangible economic benefits and are easier to measure: university technology transfer and associated activities focusing on the commercialisation of intellectual property.

In the context of management systems where ‘what can be measured matters’, community engagement is not immediately available for codification and measurement.

The concept of community engagement covers a wide range of objectives, activities and outcomes, for which it is difficult to develop simple quantitative indicators that would adequately cover the definition. Community engagement is resistant to being measured.

The New Public Management approach taken by many universities can only work on the basis of efficiency, by turning quantifiable data into simple indicators, which is often incompatible with the multifaceted and context-specific nature of community engagement.

Such an approach is highly rigid and makes encouraging and rewarding universities that respond constructively to societal needs difficult.

New developments

In proposing a new framework for community engagement in the EHEA, the project TEFCE: Towards a European Framework for Community Engagement in Higher Education is examining how to balance internal and external assessments and qualitative and quantitative assessments as well as how to develop a multidimensional, customisable and bottom-up approach to assessment.

There are four principles underlying the new framework for community engagement:

Commitment to authentic community engagement: The TEFCE framework distinguishes authentic community engagement that provides the community with a meaningful role and tangible benefits from instrumental and ‘pseudo-engagement’.

Empowerment of individual actors within and outside of the university: The TEFCE framework aims to recognise and award individual efforts and results in community engagement, thus encouraging universities to develop empowering environments for individuals to engage with their communities.

A bottom-up rather than top-down approach: The TEFCE framework is based on mapping the stories of practitioners, rather than on best practice selected by senior management. It provides both university staff and the community with a say in the process.

A learning journey rather than benchmarking: The TEFCE framework results in a qualitative discovery of good practice and a critical reflection on strengths and areas to improve, achieved through a collaborative learning process.

Community engagement practices in the TEFCE framework could range from the one-dimensional to the multifaceted, from the superficial to the embedded, from the transactional to the transformational and from collaborative betterment to collaborative empowerment. Progress across these sequences depends on producing mutual benefits for university and for community goals.

The quality of the TEFCE framework

The TEFCE framework for community engagement has been piloted at four European universities – Dresden University of Technology in Germany, Technological University Dublin in Ireland, University of Twente in the Netherlands and University of Rijeka in Croatia – and has been shown to have a positive impact on universities.

The universities confirmed that the framework is comprehensive because it allows for different kinds of community engagement. The framework allows for a context-specific application and it is not framed as ‘one size fits all’. The process proved to be participative, allowing participants to have a meaningful say in the process, and the participants appreciated the process and felt empowered.

The piloting further revealed that the institution is able to learn a lot in the process about the wealth of engagement activities taking place. The process is holistic and developmental and is not just another point-scoring exercise.

These arguments confirm the quality of the TEFCE framework, which could be implemented at different universities in the EHEA to foster their community engagement practices.

For all the above reasons, we should consider the TEFCE framework as the European Framework for Community Engagement in Higher Education.

Community engagement has emerged as a priority in the European Commission’s Renewed EU Agenda for Higher Education. United Nations initiatives, particularly through the Sustainable Development Goals, have also contributed to placing universities’ role in responding to social needs and community engagement higher up the policy agenda.

However, policy-makers at the European and national level should focus much more on community engagement in the higher education policy arena and provide incentives for more initiatives in this area in the near future.

Ninoslav Scukanec Schmidt is executive director of the Institute for the Development of Education in Croatia. He is currently co-chairing the Bologna Follow-up Advisory Group on Social Dimension and is working as policy expert in the TEFCE project. This article is based on key publications of the TEFCE project, including the report Mapping and critical synthesis of current state-of-the-art on university-community engagement, and the author would like to acknowledge all of that report’s authors for their contribution to what appears here. A discussion on the TEFCE framework was on the programme of the 2020 European University Association Annual Conference Webinar Series on 22 April 2020.