Australian research International research open access scholarly communication

Community-university engagement: A creative foundation for shared purpose

Margaret Malone, Managing Editor, Gateways journal, PhD candidate

Public universities in the 21st century are anchor institutions, with the resources and responsibility to articulate, develop and lead change in a way that few other modern institutions today can. Universities, including UTS, are increasingly recognising the need for deliberate strategies to maximise their public benefit and are drawing on new and innovative partnerships to drive this collective problem solving.

Gateways: International Journal of Community Research and Engagement is just one example of how international partnerships are helping to shape vital research and public outcomes.

Last year was a big year for Gateways. Not only did the journal celebrate ten years of publishing high-quality collaborative research, but an exciting new partnership to jointly edit and manage the journal was launched between the Centre for Social Justice and Inclusion at UTS and the Swearer Center at Brown University, USA.

This important partnership between the two universities is a wonderful testament to shared values that place importance on university-community partnerships’ potential to produce inclusive, innovative and rigorous research and practice. The notion of the civically engaged university is gaining traction, but what that might mean in the complex life of a university can be hard to define. Here we have a great example, and Gateways journal is delighted to be the beneficiary of such tangible support.

So, what makes an engaged university? What is community-based research?

At their heart, both have relationships as their starting point. Transcendent ones at that! While it may sound glib, that is our aspiration: to build and critically explore research relationships that transcend disciplinary silos, scholar-activist boundaries and theory-practice divides.

Ernest Boyer, in his seminal book, Scholarship reconsidered: Priorities of the professoriate (1990), set out the challenge for universities when he asked, ‘Can we define scholarship in ways that respond more adequately to the urgent new realities both within the academy and beyond?’

That urgency has only increased in the decades since, and Boyer’s entreaty to both ‘enlarge the perspective’ of scholarship and strive towards ‘excellence [as] the yardstick by which all scholarship must be measured’, have become central pillars of engagement.

While these foundational principles could be said to be true for all research today, they have a specific meaning for ‘engagement’; that is, the establishment of mutually beneficial and reciprocal partnerships with communities external to the university. Partnerships which harness diverse ways of knowing and experience in the producing, using and disseminating knowledge.

Looking back at the past decade of Gateways’ publishing, it’s possible to see in nearly every article the creativity, challenges and complexity inherent in the above statement. These are not easy undertakings, be they using simulation to educate police about mental illness or mobilising locals to combat human-animal infections in Vietnam.

Readers come from nearly every country in the world and submitting authors from 32 countries. Last year, total article downloads were just shy of 45,000. There is clearly an interest in high quality, innovative and collaborative research and practice on questions that impact communities. Individuals and groups – citizens – are deeply engaged with the world around them and, with digital technologies, access to information is no longer the preserve of the few.

But, equally, we know that quantity doesn’t necessarily equate to truthfulness or quality. To return to Boyer again, he reminds us that ‘scholarship in earlier times referred to a variety of creative work carried on in a variety of places, and its integrity was measured by the ability to think, communicate and learn’. Integrity! Would that it flowed from the taps like water. But it doesn’t, and so must be constantly fought for. Communities should not be romanticised, and universities aren’t always the beacon they should be. Together, we might do better.

As Gateways plans for its next decade of publishing cutting-edge community-based research, it does so with the support of two excellent centres of engagement. It’s a good place to be and we warmly invite you to be part of our journey.

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