Research area: University engagement
University-community engagement as interconnectedness
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.
Student engagement and citizenship competences
Implicit in HERANA’s engagement studies is the notion that flagship status involves broader goals, in addition to the operational flagship goals used in the studies on research productivity, which include what Douglass (2014) calls ‘the Flagship ethos’, i.e. the aspiration of flagship universities to contribute to socio-economic mobility and development through educating future leaders.
Two decades of democratisation in Africa have made it possible for flagship universities to play a leading role in their functions on legitimation, social cohesion and civic education, without contradicting but advancing the aspirational socio-political goals and values anchored in national constitutions and development plans. The more pluralistic macro-political frameworks allow flagship universities to engage in critical-constructive ways with public affairs and politics in their country and region and move upstream from operative political culture to advance socio-political development and democratisation. This requires boldness but it is precisely what bestows flagship status to a university in this respect.
CHET has developed a methodological framework and indicators for research-based institutional and national policy in terms of an application of the student engagement construct which broadens the HERANA focus on research-informed policy-making, the institutionalisation of data collection and development of comparative indicators to measure as social outcomes of higher education a set of generic graduate competences that include citizenship competences such as critical thinking skills, leadership skills, and diversity and social skills.
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