How to foster better civic engagement by universities

We live in an age in which the importance of universities demonstrating the value they bring to communities in terms of public benefits and social impact has never more been urgent – rising populism and competition for public resources post-pandemic will underline that.

In any community engagement partnership, the flip side is also the value that communities can bring to universities.

However, although community engagement has been on the agenda of universities in countries such as the United States, the United Kingdom, Ireland and Australia, it has not been taken up by many universities in the European Union, with few addressing it in a systematic way.

This article is part of a series on Transformative Leadership published by University World News in partnership with Mastercard Foundation. University World News is solely responsible for the editorial content.

There are moves afoot to deal with this issue. Two years ago, in 2018, an international project was set up to prioritise community engagement of universities in the EU’s policy agenda for higher education.

Funded through the EU’s Erasmus+ programme, the project is called TEFCE –Towards a European Framework for Community Engagement of Higher Education – and is led by the Institute for the Development of Education, or IDE, based in Zagreb, Croatia, and the Technical University of Dresden, in Germany, and involving leading researchers, universities, local authorities and university networks from seven EU member states.

It is proposing a framework for a common European approach to community engagement in higher education and today has launched a toolbox to help universities and policy-makers across the EU assess how they can better interact with their communities locally and regionally to address pressing social needs.

Thomas Farnell, higher education policy expert at IDE, told University World News: “If you look at EU policies before 2017, there was talk of the knowledge economy, relevance to the labour market and technology transfer. It was all about universities as engines of growth and innovation. Community engagement wasn’t there at all.”

He said it was first mentioned in the ‘Renewed agenda for higher education’ within the EU from 2017 and it is now emerging in policy initiatives such as the Horizon 2020 ‘Science with and for society’ programme.

“What we are seeing over the past 10 years is that we are getting a range of different challenges, from climate change to migration to economic crises, that have an impact on populism and lack of trust in institutions, where we can no longer stand aside and say economic growth will sort this out. There is a more holistic understanding of university’s societal role,” Farnell said.

Originally, the experts were being asked to find ways of measuring community engagement, but soon realised this was not practical because it is so context-specific.

“People have attempted to measure it and create rankings, but it does not work. Comparing a university in central London with one in rural Spain doesn’t make sense, because it depends on the university, the community and the socio-economic environment,” Farnell said.

Universities all tend to be doing some community engagement but it is often just bottom-up initiatives driven by motivated individual staff members, work that it is not recognised by senior managers.

The TEFCE team decided the best approach was to find a better way to enable universities to reflect on different ways to engage and how to improve what they are doing. The toolbox was developed to help universities have that discussion and enable staff active in community engagement to use it as tool for advocacy with senior management.

Farnell pointed to a pilot carried out with the Technical University of Dresden. “Their management didn’t have this on their agenda. We did bottom-up mapping of where it exists, what are the strong points, where could it could improve and put it to the new management two months ago, and they are very interested.”

Thematic dimensions

The TEFCE Toolbox maps five thematic dimensions within which university-community engagement activities can take place:

• Teaching and learning: The extent to which study programmes reflect societal needs, include community-based learning and involve external communities in teaching and learning.

• Research: The extent to which research is carried out about and with external communities.

• Service and knowledge exchange: The extent to which academic staff is involved in joint initiatives supporting external communities’ development and empowerment.

• Students: The extent to which students lead their own projects and initiatives with external communities (outside the framework of their study programmes).

• Management (partnerships and openness): The extent to which the university establishes mutually beneficial partnerships with external communities and provides them with access to facilities and resources.

The toolbox also identifies two supportive environments for community engagement. These are university management policies and support structures and the extent to which academics and other staff act as supportive peers.

Universities apply the toolbox via a series of five steps, starting with an initial discussion by a university-community team on the type and extent of community engagement at the university. Stories are then collected from community-engaged practitioners through the university to provide evidence.

Next, the toolbox matrix is used to map the level of community engagement of the university and to identify good practices, resulting in a background report.

Open discussions are then held to create a ‘participative dialogue’ among university management, staff, students and the community on strengths and areas of improvement.
Finally, an institutional report is created, promoting good practices and impact, and critical self-reflection for planning improvements to university-community engagement.

Farnell explained that the toolbox is different to other resources on community engagement because it puts ‘authenticity’ of engagement at the centre.

“Some forms [of engagement] are quite superficial, because they are just doing things with the community in a quite instrumental way, where there are no mutual benefits, just a superficial relationship.

“It’s not about just having a lecture in the community or sending students into the community to learn something. The students have to learn, but the community has to benefit as well.

“Similarly, in research, a bad example would be going into the community, doing the research and then never talking to them again. We need to determine the research agenda and discuss the findings with them. Having mutual benefits is key.”

He said the toolbox can be applied in a range of contexts, not only in Europe but worldwide as well. “We are trying to create some European movement around that and hope more and more institutions would become interested in using it in Europe and beyond.”

Change of policy needed

But the bigger picture is that there needs to be a change of policy, not just Europe-wide but at national level as well. “It’s about changing the framework conditions of higher education so that activities intended for community engagement and social impact are really actively supported, because, for now, it is still something on the margins.”

This has already happened in some countries such as the UK and Ireland, where there are top-down structures and national funding to support the community engagement agenda. In the UK the National Co-ordinating Centre for Public Engagement and the recently formed Civic University Network, and in Ireland the Campus Engage network, provide support.

In Ireland, under the National Strategy for Higher Education to 2030, Irish universities should have open engagement with their wider community and society and “this should infuse every aspect of their mission”.

In addition, the Higher Education Authority is required to “critically review” each higher education institution’s strategy with regard to the “extent to which it sets out ambitious and challenging goals for improvement, both internal in the way in which it manages itself, and in its external engagement with local, regional and national communities”.

Noel O’Connor, director of student development at Technological University Dublin or TU Dublin, said the challenge for universities is to not think in silos about the three parts of the institution’s mission – teaching and learning, research and knowledge production, and social impact. Instead, they must “integrate, integrate, integrate”.

TU Dublin students are involved in many projects with local communities. Examples include urban planning students helping to redesign an open plaza, food safety studies students supporting a meals-on-wheels service for elderly people by working on guidelines and measures for safety, and engineering students delivering construction work for a project providing clean water in Africa.

But that experience is not an add-on, O’Connor said. Rather the engagement is linked into the university’s core activity. “Whether it is teaching and learning or research, there is real benefit in terms of the quality of education we provide,” he said.

“If students are involved with the community, testing their subject knowledge or research, applying it and coming back in again and engaging and interacting with the community, you really do have a different kind of educational experience. It is definitely enhanced.”