Engaged University – Engaged Research

Coiled rope

This is the third in our series of guest blogs on the future of the engaged university. Steven Hill, head of policy at the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) and former head of strategy at Research Councils UK makes the case for engaged research, without which everything could unravel….

For many universities research sits at the heart of their missions. So to become an ‘engaged university’ requires real progress towards research that is also engaged. Engaged with citizens, the local community, the business world, and government and policy-making. This sounds like a tall order, and can easily be caricatured as more work with little benefit for already hard-pressed academics. Far from it, I would argue that engaged research brings wider benefits to all, and greater contribution, fulfillment and esteem for researchers. It is a genuine win-win.

Over the last decade or so there has been a strong movement to make research in universities more engaged with society. We have moved away from the notion that research is something confined to the academy, and that the responsibilities of researchers end if they take steps to explain their findings to the public. Now we expect real engagement, with two-way dialogue. Huge steps in this direction have been made, but I still think there is further to go, and it is through these extra steps that even greater benefits – for researchers, for the people they engage with, and for wider society – will be realised.

Despite the calls for “upstream” engagement nearly a decade ago, much of what is currently going on in terms of engagement with research still happens when the research has already been done. The company is presented with the patented findings, the community group encouraged to adopt the research-informed solution, the public invited to debate the implications of the new technology once so much has been invested in research to make a fundamental change in direction difficult.

A truly engaged university needs to change this. Truly engaged research should work with users and stakeholders through the research process, co-creating the knowledge that is needed to make a difference. For this co-creation to work effectively there is a need for long-term and trusting relationships where researchers and others meet on an equal footing, pooling their distinct expertise. Like a rope made out of a number of threads, as strands of expertise are twisted together they become much much greater than the sum of the parts.

An engaged university will make the space for co-creation to happen. Space in the busy schedule of researchers, recognizing that building relationships is hard work, takes time and does’t always bring instant rewards. And also physical spaces where those from within and outside the academy can interact, without feeling intimidated or isolated.

As well as making space, an engaged university will foster the scholarship of engagement. To do so means that this aspect of the academic life is valued and rewarded at an equivalent level to other aspects of the job. Engagement in this reading, becomes an essential component of research – working with and understanding the needs of users, and of wider society and moulding research agendas to meet those needs. To achieve scholarship in engagement means informing one’s own practice by the best available evidence. As well as understanding and applying what the evidence tells you, to demonstrate truly the scholarship of engagement researchers need to collect evidence about their own engagement. This doesn’t mean running a parallel research project for every engagement activity, but it does require reflective practice: gathering feedback, carrying out light touch evaluation and reflecting on the strengths and weaknesses of the approaches taken. Scholarship means seeking to improve on the basis of evidence and reflection.

It is through this scholarship of engagement that the threads will be woven together, making the stronger rope of effective and engaged research in the engaged university of the future.

Do let us know what you think the engaged university could be like in the future – do you agree with Steven, or do you have other ideas? What kind of metaphor would you use?

For more information on Engaged Futures, visit our website.

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