Community engagement is what universities should be for

Working in our local areas is much more than charity for higher education institutions, says Stuart Laing

March 30, 2016
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Why does university-community engagement matter? What is it for? And how could the late Sir David Watson plausibly claim that civic and community engagement constitutes a “new paradigm” in the development of the institutional mission of universities?

Probably not by looking at the current state of most English universities, facing up as they are to an increasingly competitive and self-interested climate. Let us instead shift our gaze, as Watson and his co-authors did in their 2012 book, The Engaged University, to a broader international perspective; especially to the universities of the Global South. Here, institutional missions are increasingly concerned primarily with compelling and immediate social issues: alleviating widespread poverty, improving public health, achieving universal primary and secondary education, and enabling locally controlled economic development. 

The challenge, often also set directly by governments, is for these institutions to find new and effective ways of developing, transmitting and applying knowledge for the public good; ways that may not always look anything like received Western forms of teaching or research. Measuring a university’s success here does not mean revelling in the relative failure of neighbouring institutions; rather it is often precisely through active collaboration with other universities that key widespread improvements can be effected.

This is not charity work; it is what universities should be for. As one South African voice cited in The Engaged University comments: “We need to change the perception among faculty and community partners from thinking of [university-community engagement] as philanthropic activity to one of reciprocity that respects that knowledge exists both in the university and the community.”

So how can we bring this perspective back to universities in a relatively prosperous – although still profoundly unequal – society such as the UK?

In such societies, university-community engagement should have two broad purposes. First, it should absolutely aim to mobilise and combine university knowledge and community experience to address social disadvantage and exclusion, to promote the idea of a fair society. 

Second, it should complement and collaborate with the university's service to business activities by focusing on all those areas of our daily lives that are of profound material and civic importance but which are typically seen as “non-economically productive activity”, such as caring, sustainable development, self-management of health and well-being, voluntary activity and the development of citizenship. These are all massive areas of our real lives

Vice-chancellors are often inclined to talk warmly of all the non-economic personal benefits that involvement with higher education can bring to its participants. If these comments hold water, then why should these benefits be restricted to the circa 50 per cent of the population who are destined for “graduate jobs”? To endorse this restriction would only compound the economic inequality that the much vaunted “graduate premium” is commonly agreed to underpin.

Rather, universities that develop serious and fully strategic programmes of community-university engagement can significantly extend the membership of their university communities and do so in ways that add greater colour and richness to their existing teaching and research programmes, as well as providing tangible benefits to their local communities.

National and international debates about the extent of and most effective methodologies for this kind of community-university engagement are only at an early stage; it may be some years yet before they reach full maturity. But they are developing – fast. This is what led Watson to speak of the emergence of a new paradigm, of which his own work is one of the most advanced descriptions to date.

It is for this reason, following his untimely death just over a year ago, that his colleagues and friends from across the globe together agreed to create a new annual award, the Professor Sir David Watson Awards for Community-University Partnerships, to promote the worldwide development of the idea and practice of university-community engagement. In hard times, UK universities and academics need to have the courage to look outward and learn, for that is where the future lies.

Stuart Laing is former deputy vice-chancellor and emeritus professor at the University of Brighton. To find out more about the awards set up in Sir David Watson’s memory (including how to make a donation), contact

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