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Higher Education Institutions and Personal Experience With Engagement

Recently the ‘Global Trends for Support Structures in Community University Research Partnerships: Survey Results, September 2014’ was published by the UNESCO Chair in Community-based Research and Social Responsibility in Higher Education


The report prepared by Crystal Tremblay, Budd Hall and Rajesh Tandon examined ‘Community University Research Partnerships’, and a global survey was undertaken, to map community university research partnerships. Special attention was paid to the structures and the perspectives of the various stakeholders.

The study looked at the institutional arrangements for the facilitation and support of research partnerships between Civil Society Organizations (CSO) and Higher Education Institutions (HEI). The survey results also documents the ‘best practices’ undertaken in different parts of the world to support such partnerships.

The project aims to:

  1. Develop an understanding of how research partnerships are initiated, supported, and evaluated through a comparative study of different types of institutional arrangements
  2. Promote awareness of the significance and appropriateness of creating and/or supporting such enabling structures amongst decision-makers in higher education institutions (HEIs) in the Global South
  3. Mobilize knowledge for practitioner and policy actions in creating appropriate structures in different countries through the identification of best practices and recommendations.

The most common challenges indicated by respondents are differences in timeline expectations (43.7%), and the participation of members (42.9%). These challenges are indicative of a very different culture of process and practice between Higher Education Institutions and Civil Society Organizations.

It is clear from these results that there is a different nature of knowledge cultures and diverse institutional processes that shape how research partnerships function, and ideally, flourish [Page 9]. The survey confirms that in spite of the discourse, most Community University research partnerships are still originated by Higher Education Institutions.

I was pleased to see UNESCO doing interesting research on Community University Research Partnerships. I think it is badly needed as the good relationships between the Universities and broader public are being weakening over time to be replaced with tensions in places. I am going to offer up some experience about the asymmetry which exists in the hope that it adds to the conversation out there. Here is their final report:



I am based in Edinburgh and also do work in Manchester. The project I run is a voluntary based organisation which is inspired by the Ragged Schools movement which brought about free education in the UK during the Victorian times. We set up free events where anyone can share their knowledge and passion in a social setting.

There has been a great deal of support for the project and various initiatives which have emerged from Ragged University. This has overwhelmingly come from individuals rather than from institutions and administrations, which has been surprising considering the fact that we have taken special interest in identifying policies which are actively promoted which pertain to the broader population outside of Higher Education Institutions. I now, in my day to day life, make a conscious differentiation from individual academics, students and the institution/administrations.

You cannot negotiate with a system. The usual course of affairs is that ‘information goes in, but none comes out’. This is stifling to any attempt to do dynamic work as the institutional rhetorics must be adopted and they tend to infuse the whole of the action or space.

fenced off

Policies such as Widening Participation, Accreditation of Prior Learning, and Public Engagement remain ethereal in practice, and perspectives beyond the institutional spaces remain outside the bounded silo – they are contained by a silence.

Almost invariably, when trying to connect meaningfully with a university or college from the outside, the process becomes bureaucracy and policy laden, and saturated with the objectives of the institution. This derails the attempts to create meaningful partnerships around a theme or focus which is a part of the community’s experience and life; in short, the work quickly becomes institutionalised and loses the interests of many community groups.

Most often, those people who are often referred to as ‘the hard to reach groups’, are people so haggard and disenchanted by institutional processes that they run for the hills when the trappings of officialdom fall on the space which was co-owned by those people. The demographic group which engages tends to be those people who engage in demographics; often middle class, professional, formally educated – people who are familiar with, and benefit from, the cultural paradigm.

The financialisation of education and cultural spaces has impacted on what kind of cooperation is allowed between the academics within an institution and the general public. Repeatedly I find that administrations insist on the collaboration being branded and driven in such a way that it suits the aims of the institutions rather than a mixture of negotiated aims which come from a dialogue between the community partner (Ragged University, etc) and the Higher Education Institution. Often there has been an insistence that it is a monetised event, which is antithetical to what Ragged University is creating an exclusive barrier.

There seems to be a problem of scale as Higher Education Institutions have become more corporate over the last decades. The asymmetry of the relationship is one which demoralises the smaller organisations because it takes a great deal of discussion before discovering that the ultimate reality is one in which the institutional values are given primacy.

community led organisations

Small, community led organisations and concerns simply do not have the time and energy as resources to lose, and as they are often run on the passions of the individuals who drive them the idea of compromising those ideals is distasteful (for example, financialising an event which should be accessible and inclusive). Similarly, the dictation of the resources used – Higher Education Institution’s own inhouse printers, own venues – even though it results in a more costly event. This kind of corporate in-sourcing is problematic particularly when preferential rates are not given.

The problem of scale seems to reside in the administrations of the institutions which are bound by policy and function to ensure that the interests of the institutions come first. This often binds academics and teachers from doing the work they want to do with the community under shared auspices – I have often come across discussions about how an academic has to bring money into their university at the same time as doing public engagement, and the two do not mix under the majority of circumstances. This often determines the outcome to be one which involves money to set up an event or project, and that it costs people to engage with the project. There is little consideration of adding public value or even an economic perspective of the lost-leader (as a consolation prize)…

This has frustrated many academics as the long view of sustainable returns is not something which administrations seem to recognise or devolve control to. As mentioned, as a stock circumstance, in superstructures there is a dynamic of information going in but no information coming out; it takes an unwieldy amount of time to get a response on the most simple of things from a hierarchical policy driven superstructure. Discussing interpretation of policy rarely – if ever happens – so the idea of improving the image and relationship of an institution to, and with, the surrounding population does not go far. The bottom line is given that the students which pay a great deal have to benefit from the interaction primarily, or finances have to flow into the institution from the venture.

The amount of time and consistent sapping of scarce financial resources to engage with the often pleasant liaison which accompanies this is a very real barrier for small community concerns. Paying for a bus fare, buying a cup of coffee, taking an afternoon out to do this – these all mount up if it is endless and without return. This is a pity, because almost invariably the individuals who take time to do this are nice, and personal in delivering this placation. As the great systems analyst Deming suggested, it is usually not the individuals in the system which is the problem, but the constraints with which they have to work.

In my experience Higher Education Institution’s dictate the agendas and community knowledge/needs/aims are matched to these rather than other way round. I have had the good fortune to have met the academics who work very hard to ensure that community interests are engaged with, however it is painfully obvious that doing this creates an unhealthy burden of work and stress on them – as it is an uphill struggle which exhausts them. They themselves, as individuals, must work within their bureaucratic system to win over the institution to the initiative or else ‘fit it to the box’. This is most commonly something which is too onerous on the individual when their other workloads are taken into consideration – thus many academics say that they would like to, but simply do not have the time and support within their circumstance to engage.


The individual academic, and their efforts, often gets trapped in the policy laden administrative hierarchy of institutional superstructures. With the development of outcomes and measurements paperworks, the adopting of onerous insurance policies and specialized valuation systems (such as the Research Excellence Framework), the community approach is usually not equipped to engage with the institutions – financially, in terms of status, and in terms of logistical resources (i.e. time, skill, labour). This is why usually it is financed, well established charities which most often engage from the outside situation towards the inside.

Intellectual property is starting to impinge on the work done in the community, and this does not bode well for community relationships. The idea of people’s personal lives, passion and work being locked away from the community that brought the data/project together is something of a sticking point for many. For example, the work to develop a course around alternative perspectives of psychiatry came from engaging with the psychiatric survivors community; but much of it is no longer accessible by the very community which contributed.

People shared their information, stories, opinions and work with the course’s development and now it is no longer available to access by the general public. Another example is a local man in Edinburgh who was previously an academic created a degree course in Art for the community context which was meant to be free; he tried to work with a local university before he backed out because the stipulations of the university included ownership of the course, work and outcomes.

Lastly, the student populations are more and more driven with a rhetoric which is insular. With the financialization of the education sector, the perception that people are attending the university for to fill their curriculum vitae and “get their money’s worth for a future career” is prominent in the landscape. The students unions and activities are often ‘by the students, for the students’ and the public engagement activities/events produced are usually oriented towards supporting the student populations alone.

The ‘leadership’ rhetoric which is emerging are disturbing because of the lack of valuation of expertise outside of the institutional context. Students are often told that they are going out into the communities and teaching the world – and it neglects all they can learn from being a part of a community which has developed its own knowledge and insight through lived experience and other rich means.

It is especially evident in the badge hunting initiatives where students want to ‘get some volunteering time on their cv’. They are told that they are the leaders of the future and that the community is where to practice their leadership skills. This results in student volunteering schemes delivering people who do the bear minimum to the allotted task and where the training costs for the voluntary groups outweigh the invested return. Taking on student volunteers has become a deadweight cost for the Ragged project on many occasions, which is unfortunate because it is obvious that the students are under a great deal of pressure to perform and make the best of their educational opportunity.

Student Volunteers

When volunteering becomes something which is a tacit career badge, it can have damaging effects. It does not negate the fact that it draws more out of the project that it puts in. There is much anecdotal evidence that local venues are becoming reticent about taking bookings for student events as often they cancel or do not show; similarly, doing ‘fundraisers’ by students where they aim to raise cash for the organisation is sometimes dubious due to insensitivity to the delicate relationships on which the community groups are based.

For example, I can think of a situation where a student group were trying to raise money for a rape and sexual abuse organisation; but the overall impact of their perceived need to drive home a message offended a number of people and isolated a few. The interpersonal skills and communications which were needed to do something like this come from a long term relationship with the subject and community. Unfortunately, those involved were trying to act with haste in a situation which required patience and calm.

It is hard to put forward these criticisms having known so many good people through so many endeavours, but I feel it is important to have these experiences on record. The University of Edinburgh is apparently the biggest land owner in Edinburgh, and the City of Edinburgh is flooded with a vast number of students which come from all over the world.

The relationship between the local communities and the institution is one which is thin on the ground, and it only takes a dozen conversations with local people to survey the thoughts and feelings about the university. There is a divide and unfortunately it seems to be divided by policy. The workings of institutions tower over the local surrounds and it would be good to find more practical discourse to improve relationships through reciprocity and ways of working together.

I feel at odds with the harmony I would like to exist in writing this article, but for its journalistic quality feel a need to share it. The individual academics which are caught up in these superstructures are dedicated to the provision of education yet pulled in different directions by the marketization forces.

Captive State George Monbiot

Reading George Monbiot’s book Captive State, I come across some reportage which helps set the scene for the atmosphere in which we are trying to operate. According to the European Round Table of Industrialists “The provision of education is a market opportunity and should be treated as such” [European Round Table of Industrialists, November 1998, Job Creation and Competitiveness through Innovation, ERT, Brussels]. Is this kind of influence what is driving Higher Education Institutions to become more corporate ?  Is it helpful in the long run ?

I hope that this is a useful commentary on trying to engage with the larger institutions.  It is from experience and has been reinforced over the past 4 years in terms of the educational project.  There seems to be a parent child relationship between sizeable institutions and smaller concerns – be it the individual or group.  Without honest feedback, we run the risk of losing some of the important points to improving the institutions we know and love.

If we understand the institution from the perspective of Marc Bloch when he was discussing institutions, they were not the petrified fictions of the lawyer, but the changing patterns which emerge from human life.  I like to think of institutions in terms of Umberto Eco where he states kinship relations as the primary nucleus of institutionalised social relations.

Working out how reciprocity can be developed more, and how institutions can greater reflect the kinship relations which inspire there conception is, I think, a good thing.  Particularly when there are such interesting policies which have been thought out to widen participation and value what is going on in the landscape.  I am always interested in hearing thoughts and critiques, experiences and suggestions; if you have anything to share on this matter, please get in touch:



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