The benefits of engagement

Simon Gaskell and Adrian Collette explain why proper engagement is an important driver of institutional performance, teaching and research

December 8, 2016
Birds feeding from buffalo's nostrils
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At Times Higher Education’s World Academic Summit in Melbourne last year, conversations on teaching, research, leadership and rankings converged on a recurring theme: engagement. Defying the constraints of its dedicated panel session, engagement permeated the summit’s agenda, coffee breaks and closing reflections. It was even proposed as the factor to differentiate leading universities over the next five years.

One of us, Simon Gaskell, opened the session on community engagement with the proposition that engagement was not only compatible with the aspirations of leading research-intensive universities, but that these aspirations can only be achieved through deep engagement.

The breadth of response – spanning furious agreement to curious scepticism – was surprising given the ubiquity of engagement in university mission statements and strategies. What seemed to confound some and embolden others was engagement’s casting as a strategically valuable orientation, rather than a worthy expression of social responsibility.

But in the past two decades, the practice and management of university engagement has matured. In the UK, policymakers and universities have given sustained focus to building engagement capacity: introducing dedicated funding streams, establishing networks to promote cultural change and disseminate good practice (such as the National Coordinating Centre for Public Engagement), and, frequently, reviewing the results. While Australia has not followed such a systematic approach – a rare exception for two systems usually in lock-step – in both contexts universities have become more reliant on their appeal to students, industry partners and donors. At the same time, governments and communities demand greater and more immediate relevance and accountability. The days of people looking at universities with awe have long gone. Our “use” now comes under increasing scrutiny, for better or worse.

Highlighting engagement as a distinct “third stream” of the academic mission has doubtlessly supported its acceptance and development. However, the risk of such characterisation is always marginalisation: designating engagement as a worthy but too often peripheral activity, to be brandished when politically expedient or when funding is at stake.

But our claim is that the value of engagement is not as an end but as a means – of enriching teaching, research and service, and applying these to advance the public mission of universities. This is not a new idea. More than 20 years ago Michigan State University described engagement (or “outreach”) in similar terms, and has been institutionalising it ever since. This commitment was demonstrated recently in MSU’s comprehensive response to the Flint water crisis, in which lead contaminated the public water supply, triggering a federal state of emergency and threatening an already challenged community. This began with an MSU faculty member discovering elevated lead levels in the city’s children and extended to an institutional response touching almost every asset and discipline, including several faculty appointments and the establishment of a coordinating committee to oversee long-term solutions to the crisis. Indeed, much of the leading engagement thinking and practice has emerged from the US, where the “engaged campus” movement and the Carnegie Foundation’s “Community Engagement Classification”, which recognises institutions doing good work in this area, have brought sustained purpose, focus and momentum.

What is new is the audience for these ideas, and its receptiveness to the message. One leading engagement consultant reflects that her appointments, once initiated by dedicated engagement staff, now come exclusively from university boards and presidents. Also new is the vigour, commitment and maturity of approach, as university leaders consider not only the expression of engagement in strategy, but how to deliver strategy into practice.

Walking the talk

A 2014 study of perspectives on engagement among British academics and university executives, “Addressing the elephant in the room: are universities committed to the third stream agenda”, reveals a gulf between the rhetoric and reality of engagement. While engagement strategies may be well articulated (and always enlivened with imagery), the study, published in the International Journal of Academic Research in Management, shows that they are seldom translated into meaningful changes to the academic enterprise.

Similar perspectives extend across the Atlantic. In the 2012 edited volume The Engaged Campus: Majors, Minors and Certificates as the New Community Engagement, Dan Butin, a professor at Merrimack College in Massachusetts, argues that higher education has reached an “engagement ceiling”, falling short of its promise for academic faculty, students and communities. Realising the potential of engagement demands a commitment to work differently beyond and within traditional university boundaries. In 2016, this marks the frontier of engagement. With universities taking some truly diverse approaches, from building faculty engagement capabilities to structured institutional responses to sharply focused societal challenges, the next few years will see unprecedented advances in the practice and leadership of engagement, and thereby enhance a powerful source of competitive advantage.

The experiences of our respective institutions, Queen Mary University of London and the University of Melbourne, are illustrative of changes at many institutions that are forging a meaningful, strategic place for engagement. Each university has appointed a vice-principal tasked with leading engagement. This parity of seniority compared with leaders with “conventional” remits is important: engagement strategies must mesh with, and mutually reinforce, established executive portfolios. The boundaries of engagement are rightly blurring. Research translation and impact, once squarely in the domain of engagement or knowledge transfer, are now central to research excellence, for instance. It may be that continuing success in the engagement portfolio will reduce the need for an executive lead; more likely, however, is that this approach to engagement will continue to be developed and refined.

Even with a focus on embedding engagement, there remains a place for significant institutional investments. Universities are becoming far more sophisticated about where to direct these, and how they can be structured to harness and further the academic enterprise and create public value. For example, Queen Mary’s Centre of the Cell (the world’s first science education centre to be located within working biomedical research laboratories) and the University of Melbourne’s Science Gallery (which, when it opens in 2020, will explore “the collision of art and science”) serve to build science literacy and ambition among young people.

Clown fish hiding among anemone

Yet the overwhelming majority of engagement effort, and often the most impactful, is not centrally led but is instead a fundamental part of each academic’s teaching and research. This has been at the root of much conceptual discomfort around engagement: how do we measure and evaluate engagement so widely dispersed? This is an important question, but it is ultimately subservient to: “How can engagement strengthen our teaching and research?”

At Melbourne, this recognition has changed how we develop, evaluate and reward our academic staff. In performance reviews and promotion applications, academics no longer describe their engagement activities alongside their teaching, research, leadership and service. Rather, they describe the role that engagement serves to enrich their work and fulfil the university’s public mission. The principal role of our engagement strategy then becomes building an environment and culture that supports engagement, rather than directing and brokering from the centre.

The same principles, albeit with different terminology, apply at Queen Mary. Performance and promotion are judged on the basis of contributions across the knowledge creation/knowledge dissemination spectrum, a continuum of academic activity in which engagement is embedded, with multiple cross-connections.

This is a simple but important shift. That the purpose of engagement drives its nature and form is self-evident, yet its evolution from the simplistic “knowledge transfer” endpoint involves far more than new terminology. For example, at Queen Mary, the East London Genes and Health research programme matches the disease profiles in patients from the East End with their genotype. Public engagement at the very first stage enables the collection of samples that permits the research to be conducted. This programme, the world’s largest community genetics study, has been widely accepted by the local community as a promising initiative to improve the health of the general population.

Medical science has also proven the exemplar at Melbourne, with deep relationships between medical faculty and partner hospitals, research institutes and industry, forged through co-location and the fluid movement of people and ideas. Research, teaching and the public good depend on this ecosystem, which sees students engage with practitioners, researchers and patients in ways that enrich each element. This clinical teaching model, in which students constantly apply, reflect upon and refine their learning, is both deeply effective and adaptable to other disciplinary contexts.

Beyond medicine, Melbourne is the Australian university partner of Vote Compass, an online tool that allows voters to explore and compare their views on a range of issues with the positions of political parties. This idea was launched by the University of Toronto in partnership with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation for the 2011 Canadian federal election and has since been adapted to the US and Australia. It was used by 1.4 million Australians in the 2013 federal election, making it the largest social survey ever conducted in the country outside the national census. Such datasets are now providing researchers with important longitudinal insight into public attitudes on key policy areas.

In teaching and learning, Melbourne’s Grimwade Centre for Cultural Materials Conservation has established a two-way learning partnership with the Warmun indigenous community in the remote Kimberley region of Western Australia. Students reside with the community to learn about their culture and art, while helping them to conserve their unique artworks.

Further afield, the “convening power” of universities is also creating new opportunities for teaching and research. An example of this is from Simon Fraser University, which has the explicit ambition to be Canada’s most community-engaged research university. Its Centre for Dialogue offers a non-partisan platform to bring together external partners, governments and the public to address complex policy issues, drawing on the centre’s expertise. This allows the university to engage with a wider community and undertake and apply research and scholarship. The centre also teaches an undergraduate course in facilitating dialogue.

Reimagining the public university

The question of what constitutes a university’s public value and public responsibility has become all the more fractious as public spending declines. At the Melbourne summit, Nicholas Dirks, chancellor of the University of California, Berkeley, spoke of the course his institution is charting as its state funding stands at just 13 per cent of revenue. Upholding what Dirks describes as the distinguishing characteristic of great public institutions – providing an excellent education for the broadest possible public – with declining public funding creates an opportunity and imperative to forge new relationships beyond the academy.

In recent years, philanthropic support for universities in the UK and Australia has grown as donors who may not have an existing relationship with a university consider it as a vehicle for advancing the issues they care about. This is prompting universities to consider anew their roles as responsible public institutions; it is ironic, and more than a little dangerous, to suggest that declining public funding may actually be prompting universities to rediscover their public ethos.

Engagement, too, is important in preserving and valuing existing public investments in higher education. A recent study by David Weerts, “The public-good variable: can public engagement boost state support for higher education?”, finds a positive relationship between levels of state funding to American public research universities and the culture and public profile that they foster towards the economic and social health of their communities. This finding, published in Change: The Magazine of Higher Learning, is confirmation of a challenge that university presidents and sector representative bodies in many countries will know well: the vital role that public understanding and confidence have in sustaining the work of universities.

Of course, the strategic role of engagement is not limited to funding. Strategy and leadership is ultimately about positioning the institution to succeed within a changing external environment. Engagement is the capacity that builds the “entrepreneurial university”, one that is more responsive to its students, partners and communities. In an innovation ecosystem in which universities are one of many participants, an ability to connect, collaborate and share knowledge and resources is a vital strategic capability. A commitment to excellence in teaching and research will increasingly depend on a university’s capacity to partner as much it does on its ability to create and disseminate knowledge. Put another way, effective engagement that is central to university strategy may provide the most powerful driver of the agility required to thrive in the uncertain environment to which universities are subject worldwide.

As policy settings bend to both reflect and further this reality, we might anticipate more conversations at global university conferences veering towards engagement. As for the case for including engagement metrics in global rankings, it depends largely on the role you think these rankings serve. If rankings are barometers of institutional performance at a point in time, including engagement measures will not add a great deal. If your interest is in understanding what drives institutional performance, engagement will increasingly become the place to start.

Simon Gaskell is president and principal of Queen Mary University of London. Adrian Collette is vice-principal (engagement) at the University of Melbourne.


Print headline: Public displays of progression

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Reader's comments (1)

Engage more people, more effectively, for less money.Online engagement is far from free if you want to do it well, but it is far more scalable than traditional methods. This doesn’t mean you should stop doing face-to-face engagement, it means you should use a mixed methodology to get the best results.