Universities and charities ‘need to work closer together’

The academy needs to look beyond knowledge transfer to co-production when it comes to working with the third sector, a report says

April 26, 2016
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Closer collaboration between universities and the third sector could lead to significant improvements in public policymaking, a report by the Carnegie UK Trust argues.

In his introduction to InterAction: How Can Academics and the Third Sector Work Together to Influence Policy and Practice?, Martyn Evans, chief executive of the trust, cites evidence that “universities’ research results are little used by policymakers and practitioners even though they are the most trusted source of evidence”.

Those in Whitehall were unsympathetic to “the narrow focus of things like the research excellence framework ‘impact’ agenda”, since they were “less concerned with the impact of a specific piece of research and much more interested in cumulated knowledge and expertise”.

Yet if “third-sector organisations’ research (and especially that of thinktanks)” is less trusted but more widely read than what emerges from the academy, Mr Evans goes on, this leaves “clear scope for universities and third-sector organisations to explore working together to influence policy and practice, building on the trust enjoyed by university research, while also capitalising on voluntary and community organisations’ apparently greater success in reaching policy and practice”.  

Such themes are taken up by the report’s author, Mark Shucksmith, professor of planning and director of the Institute for Social Renewal at Newcastle University.

The third sector, he writes, is keen to engage with universities for a number of reasons: to “enhance the status and trust accorded to their own reports and attempts to influence policy and practice”; to “access expert knowledge” and “the various resources of universities”, including peer-reviewed journals normally protected by paywalls; and to obtain “evaluation[s] of their work, usually to support a further funding application”.

Yet the last of these tended to “have a low priority for academics, unless there is sufficient novelty for it to have potential to score highly in the research excellence framework”.

More generally, the round table discussions that formed part of the background research for the report highlighted “a common view that universities are not easy partners for the third sector”, since they are seen as “difficult to engage with, highly fragmented and siloed, and naively unaware of the policy world”. One of the problems was an outmoded attitude that “only universities produce knowledge”, which then has to be “transferred” to “users”.

Professor Shucksmith goes on to flag up ways of bridging this divide.

Newcastle University has embraced a vision to become “a world-class civic university”, committed to “respond[ing] to the needs and demands of civil society”, and other institutions have pursued similar initiatives.

More radical is the idea of merging the realms of science and policy in the “co-production of knowledge…in ways which interfere with conventional research practices and roles of researchers, such that science goes beyond providing information and becomes involved in the process of governance itself”.


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