Research will suffer if community ties neglected, letter warns

Plea comes amid concerns that UK’s post-Covid research plans have yet to adequately map out non-commercial engagement  

August 2, 2020
global, community

The quality of scholarship undertaken in the wake of the pandemic could suffer if university partnerships with community groups are not properly factored into post-Covid plans for research collaboration, academics have warned.

It comes after more than 500 academics and community organisations wrote to UK Research and Innovation to raise concerns that, although it has announced a new task force with the National Centre for Universities and Business (NCUB) to boost collaboration with industry, there is a lack of an equivalent plan to engage with charities, voluntary groups and third sector organisations.

Keri Facer, professor of educational and social futures at the University of Bristol and one of the academics behind the letter, said she was worried that financial and other pressures faced by such organisations and universities could lead to drop off in engagement.

“The reality is that in a lot of areas we can’t do good research without engagement with civil society and community groups,” she said.

Professor Facer, leadership fellow for the Arts and Humanities Research Council’s Connected Communities Programme, said that academics would always seek to work with such organisations given its importance for research and wider society, but the pressures on time and resources could take its toll.

“This sort of collaboration does really take time so what I am really concerned about is that the quality of our research will drop off because we just won’t be able to build the sort of partnerships that are necessary,” she said. “These collaborations…aren’t nice-to-have, benevolent relationships, they’re absolutely essential to us being able to develop the knowledge we need to address the problems we have.”

Budd Hall, an emeritus professor at Canada’s University of Victoria who co-leads a United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation programme on community-based research, said on a global scale, there was “no question” that the pandemic had “highlighted the need for new and permanent types of partnerships between universities and the communities where they are located”. 

“If we do not make the resources of our higher education institutions available to respond to the issues of our communities…we may very well question the very idea of a university,” he said.

He pointed to various models around the world that could provide examples of good practice to follow in building up university and community partnerships. One he flagged was in Ireland, where a programme called Campus Engage has been “supporting engagement and post-Covid conversations”.

There are also growing examples of individual universities attempting to make community engagement a firmer part of their post-Covid strategy.

For example, Nottingham’s two universities have just announced a “civic agreement” with local government and other organisations – claimed to be the first of its kind in the UK – a move that had been “accelerated” because of the pandemic. 

One issue is that community interaction and the positive outcomes it produces can sometimes be harder to measure. Business-university collaborations can sometimes be tracked through metrics such as patent citations or co-authorship but similar data may not be available for partnerships with organisations like charities.

However, figures that do exist suggest community engagement could be more prevalent than work with businesses: survey results from a 2016 NCUB report suggested more than 40 per cent of academics had recently worked with third sector organisations, compared with about a third for the private and public sector. Increasing attempts are also being made to measure university performance in terms of social impact, such as Times Higher Education’s Impact Rankings.

simon.baker@timeshighereducation.com

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