An energetic dance

In the next in our series of guest blogs on the future of the engaged university, Kim Aumann (Boing Boing) envisions the future as a dance between equal partners committed to making a positive difference. Getting there will require significant
change to how universities currently behave.

What might the ‘future engaged university’ look like in ten years time? Well, I for one, have my fingers crossed that it holds the qualities I see in this image: a joint venture, 100% occupied in an energetic and sophisticated dance, music in the air ♫ ♪ and steps that sure need to be made clear.

An energetic danceYou see, I am a community partner involved with a team of others, developing a UK wide community partner network, eager to find ways to strengthen community-university partnership working. I want my future engaged university to be more responsive, to work with its community to tackle social inequalities and as a public institution, to use its resources, knowledge and expertise to get involved in improving the nature and conditions of the world in which we live. Having worked with different academics for the past ten years, I think community-university partnerships can be a useful tool to problem solve, productively engage others in dealing with community concerns, add to the quality and relevance of research and teaching, impact the next generation of practitioners and researchers so they have in their hearts a commitment to make their work matter.

But here’s the thing – the move to a fully engaged university may call for the tables to be turned for a while. A future full of dynamic engaged universities will require them to be more transparent, examine power differentials and share their locus of control a little more – I am expecting unease and rumbles along the way. Sometimes when I aim for change and I’m not very familiar with doing things differently, I move to the opposite extreme before eventually settling back into a middle ground that I can sustain comfortably. My hunch is that instead of the university taking the lead, the community needs to call the shots more. This is not to say the university has to compromise its valued research or teaching expertise, but instead move closer to partnering with different but equally valuable external expertise and ask itself: who’s setting the agenda, designing the work; how fully is the community involved; who holds the golden data source; how is the budget being shared; what’s the policy implication; what do community partners require to engage fully with us; who is best placed to spread the findings?

No doubt about it, the impact agenda is likely to be one move in the right direction especially if the community gets involved in assessing the quality of planned pathways and the true effectiveness and relevance of the outputs produced. There is plenty of best practice to harness and share. For example, I think more universities will introduce well-advertised central co-ordinated points of contact for its external partners and any move they make to enter the public domain and increase their visibility can only help to increase their accountability. Engagement aspirations will get properly written into mission statements from which will stem evaluation as well as points for communities to further hold their universities accountable. And surely, proper investment and stable funding for this work will finally be prioritised and begin to influence the way in which academics are recognised for engagement activity.

Yep, it is hard to imagine the English ‘ivy league’ universities relinquishing their power easily, and certainly not without a concerted push from the public and HE funders, but I think a much larger group of universities will become hubs for genuine knowledge exchange and co-collaboration. Their endeavour will continue to be the pursuit of high quality research and teaching but with the added value of drawing on and combining different knowledge bases in that pursuit. Working together can achieve more than either partner can do alone, so here’s hoping I get to witness a shift towards valuing different types of expertise, increased connection to the communities within which universities are placed, more socially driven agendas and loads more rounded research and training that not only illuminates issues, but engages in solutions and seeks positive social change.

What kind of dance do you think best respresents the future of engaged universities? Share your thoughts with us.

For more information on Engaged Futures, visit our website.

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