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Productive Community Engagement: Community? Engage? Why bother?

Academic Board forum, 4 April 2003

Introduction

The aim of the forum was to stimulate discussion about the challenges facing universities in the area of community engagement and to pose the questions:

  • Are current community engagement practices preparing and benefiting graduates for their post-university experiences, advancing research or otherwise returning value to UTS?
  • What are some of the key challenges facing universities in the area of community engagement, and how will UTS respond to these challenges?
  • How can community engagement activity be measured and evaluated? How do we know if it is adding value to community, staff and students?

Although attended by about 50 people, the forum had reinvigorated discussion about community engagement within the University.

Speakers

Sr Susan Connelly
Sr Susan Connelly RSJ is a well known advocate for the rights of refugees, is an outspoken advocate of East Timor issues and of the need for greater morality in governance.

Brendan Lynch
Mr Brendan Lynch headed the team responsible for the recruitment of the 60,000 volunteers for the Sydney 2000 Olympic and Paralympic Games.

David Gardener
Professor David Gardiner is acting Deputy Vice-Chancellor at QUT, and formerly as Pro-Vice-Chancellor (Research and Advancement) was responsible for QUT's community engagement initiatives.

Mark Jackson
Mr Mark Jackson spent 12 months working in Cambodia as an Australian Youth Ambassador for Development.

Nada Roude
Ms Nada Roude is a community development worker connected to many community organisations throughout NSW.

Highlights

The following are highlights of key points made by speakers:

Sr Susan Connelly
Sr Connelly pointed out that there is a need to recognise the importance of education in its own right and not simply as part of an economic model. She emphasised the necessity for universities to recover their role in shaping public policy rather than accepting what is handed down from government. She saw a leadership role for universities in recovering truth and integrity and informing the development of public policy.

Brendan Lynch
Mr Lynch outlined the lessons learned from the Sydney Olympics experience. He outlined the critical factors leading to a successful community engagement program as follows:

  • specific training for those involved
  • team building, testing and evaluation
  • effective communication and follow-through
  • reward and recognition
  • recognition that appropriate resources must be provided.

David Gardener
Professor Gardiner outlined the QUT experience with its community engagement programs. QUT had benefited from having a top-level plan under which community engagement activity was organised. This gave it appropriate recognition and ensured that community engagement activities were consistent with organisational goals and strategies. Community engagement is seen as being closely related to teaching and research.

There is a strong ethos at QUT of inculcating community engagement values in students as well as staff.

QUT provides $200,000 off the top in competitive grants each year, and $300,000 for faculties as part of the Community Engagement Quantum. Community engagement is seen as being both philanthropic and potentially commercial. It is useful in creating long term relationships.

Mark Jackson
Mr Jackson posed the question as to whether it is the university engaging the community, or the community engaging the university. He pointed out that while the community must be receptive to the university's initiatives, it is also essential for the university to be receptive to the community's initiatives. He viewed community engagement as a two-way process in which both sides learned from each other.

Nada Roude
Ms Roude presented community engagement as a way in which universities could address social justice challenges and provide both training and leadership within the community. Universities were seen as having a moral obligation to assist community needs. She also reinforced the message that student involvement in community engagement activities was an essential part of the education of students in a multicultural society. She spoke highly of the community engagement work of Shopfront.

General points in discussion

The following were among the points raised in discussion:

  1. The community should be involved as early as possible in the planning cycle.
  2. Current community engagement activity within the University needs to be better recognised and validated, and the role of the University as a good 'corporate citizen' should be emphasised.
  3. There may be advantages in re-conceptualising community engagement as research or at least having a broader interpretation of 'research funding'.
  4. There is a need for a comprehensive database of community engagement activity.
  5. There is a need for adequate recognition of and resourcing for subjects that encourage community engagement or have a large community engagement component.
  6. There are benefits in having a part of the organisation dedicated to facilitating community engagement activity, such as Shopfront.
  7. Consideration should be given to defining what is meant by 'community', including international communities.
  8. The close linking of community engagement with the core activities of teaching and research is critical to the profile of community engagement within the organisation.
  9. The possible relevance of moving towards a 'triple bottom line' approach, which widens the scope of traditional reporting to include the social, environmental and economic performance of an organisation, was also suggested.

The Vice-Chancellor made the point that 'community engagement' is a much better term than the existing term 'community service'. Community engagement is a less patronising term and offers more possibilities, and is consistent with the practice orientation of UTS.

Community engagement is not only a core value of UTS but also arises out of the core activities of teaching and research. It includes UTS partnerships in joint research and consultancy, work-based learning programs and teaching service provision for a wide range of community groups.

He suggested that the way forward for UTS might be along the lines of:

  • adopt a more strategic approach to community engagement,
  • regard community engagement as an integrating theme across UTS,
  • professionalise engagement with the community,
  • engage students more deliberately in community engagement,
  • explore an adaptation of the QUT approach for UTS.