Date: 13 Nov 2012

Universities’ Perspectives on Community Engagement

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Abstract

This chapter makes the argument that despite the fact that utility has always been important to why universities exist, engaging with communities has been framed in ways that reinforce its perception as a transient, peripheral and even undesirable activity. The chapter begins by noting the way that the ‘idea of a university’ is used to create abstract arguments for what universities should do on the basis of what they have done. The chapter highlights four arguments which have evolved in ways that have made it difficult for community engagement to gain acknowledgement for its contribution to universities. Firstly, it is difficult to validate community knowledge as universally valid and excellent because of the way it becomes tied to local concerns. Secondly, there has been a tendency to frame universities’ societal contributions as being subordinate to an ‘intrinsic’ value to higher education which is somehow more valuable. Thirdly, increasing emphasis on individual benefits in public policy underplays the wider community formation role played by university–community engagement. Finally, the rise of league tables and notions of world-class universities have created a sense that community engagement is something that the best universities simply do not do. The chapter illustrates this with a case study of community engagement missions in Scottish universities, which finds a net effect of seeing that even well-meaning attempts to introduce community engagement find it fragmented and dissipated in trying to come to term with these tensions. The potential for university–community engagement to become a central mission for universities therefore depends on the future course of these debates.