The Connectedness of Engagement Projects
Project update: January 2015
Lead researcher: Francois van Schalkwyk
This HERANA Phase 2 Project built on the work done in Phase 1 on the development-related projects at African universities. It conducted a more in-depth study of engagement projects at two of the eight universities studied in Phase 1. It did so in order to develop a better understanding of the tension between the relevance of academic activity to social needs, on the one hand, and aligning academic work with policy priorities and strengthening the academic core of the university, on the other hand.
The research focused on devising indicators on university–community engagement by conceptualising engagement as ‘interconnectedness’. Interconnectedness describes the relationship (in tension) of academics engaging with those outside of the university while simultaneously linking back to the university. Interconnectedness is operationalised along two dimensions: (1) ‘articulation’ which describes the extent to which engagement activities link to the university’s strategic objectives and to external constituents in a sustainable manner, and (2) the ‘academic core’ which describes the extent to which engagement activities link to the university’s core functions of research and teaching and learning.
Broadly speaking, the study aimed to develop a deeper understanding of the tension inherent in university engagement activities and, in particular, how these activities impact on the university as key knowledge producer. The study found that it is possible to develop a set of indicators to assess the extent to which university engagement activities are articulated and strengthening the core functions of universities. The concept of interconnectedness provides a useful framework for operationalising research on engagement activities, and the indicators and their graphical representation provide a useful tool for identifying patterns, and for revealing and confirming informative dimensions of university–community engagement activities.
The study suggests that engagement between university academics and those external to the university is active. The nature of this engagement, however, varies considerably and, more portentously, based on the findings of this study, the degree to which such engagement activities can be said to be strengthening the university as key knowledge producing institution is uneven and too frequently marginal.
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