Engagement Australia Leadership Forum: From Agency to Action!

Engagement Australia Leadership Forum: From Agency to Action!

The 2019 Engagement Australia signature Leadership Forum themed From Agency to Action! saw 50 senior university leaders in engagement come together in Canberra earlier this month to hear from some of the world’s leading experts in university engagement on how they are shaping and integrating the very best of what has been learned locally and globally with current practice.

The overarching theme for the global Leadership Forum this year was to advance the Australian sector’s Engagement agenda – a step from agency to action in a year that will see new rankings and evaluation systems for university engagement emerge. The premise underpinning the Leadership Forum was that the Australian Higher Education context is distinctive for the relatively few formal policy instruments for shaping the engagement agenda, offering an opportunity for universities themselves to shape their own future collaboratively, as we continue to find unity in our celebrated diversity.

However, the reality is that universities also compete with one another for places in a hierarchy of league tables and many believe that there is an increasing need for alternative global rankings around meaningful engagement.  Melbourne University has partnered with the University of Chicago and King’s College London to explore possible incentives for institutional engagement and consider the intricacies of making engagement truly global and measuring it. Any new approach to measuring meaningful engagement would need to accommodate widely differing contexts across an Australian institutional landscape that is proud to be diverse and different.

International guest speaker Professor Mary Stuart CBE, Vice Chancellor of the University of Lincoln (voted UK’s most inspiring leader for her leadership in ‘civic engagement) challenged participants to embrace the notion of ‘civic leadership.’ She spoke passionately about the need for universities to create vibrant spaces where key conversations with community leaders can happen, new ideas can be tested and future scenario building of regions and cities can be experimented with.  She questioned the distinction between ‘local’ and ‘global’ communities arguing that such language created an unhelpful divide for universities.  Lincoln University has created a ‘21st Century Lab’ designed to address ‘21st Century challenges’ by bringing together different voices from outside the sector and within and from across the world to focus on ‘place-making’ to support Lincolnshire’s ‘liveability, history and culture.’  Professor Stuart challenged those university leaders gathered to consider doing the same for their region, stating:

Our focus must be on nurturing and developing an inclusive, connected, open and global society. We may not have all the right or wrong answers however we should navigate our pathway with integrity.”

Professor Sharon Bell AM, Deputy Vice Chancellor (Strategy and Planning) WSU, reminded delegates that more than ever critically engaged universities needed to use their voice to connect with their communities to address pressing 21st Century challenges – including our engagement with democracy itself.   The words we choose to use to communicate and connect with our communities (including our own academic community) are important and a focus on universities as ‘anchor’ institutions driving ‘civic engagement’ seems to resonate within the sector globally.  Professor Bell’s lead article for the Leadership Forum The Critically Engaged University of the Future called on university leaders to re-imagine their ‘critical civic role to frame our institutional purpose’.

Dr Julie Wells, Vice-President (Strategy and Culture) at Melbourne University informed the group that the University of Melbourne had partnered with the University of Chicago, King’s College London and more recently Lincoln University to explore possible incentives for institutional engagement and consider the intricacies of making engagement truly global and measuring it.  As the Senior Officer for the lead Australian University for this major project, Dr. Wells challenged delegates to consider how universities might need to invest/be recognised for their engagement and what role university rankings could serve in advancing (or hindering) this ‘Impact’ agenda.

Dr Tamson Pietsch, Director of the Australian Centre for Public History, University of Technology Sydney, representing the lead city-based institution for the Australian Carnegie Engagement Classification trial at the Leadership Forum, highlighted the need for a new narrative around ‘Impact’ – particularly in terms of research.  Dr. Pietsch reminded delegates that the notion of a ‘civic university’ was not a new idea but one that needed to be re-invented for modern times. Universities needed to conduct research both as a form of impact and engagement and in relation to learning and teaching for a social purpose not just to engage industry.  Dr. Pietsch highlighted some of the difficulties in measuring engagement, particularly around social and environmental issues which were crucial to a vibrant university life.

The Hon. Verity Firth updated the group on the Carnegie Classification Engagement system Australian trial which now consists of ten Australian universities (a quarter of the sector) who will adopt and adapt this international ‘gold standard.’ This pilot project, which will report its findings at the UA conference in 2020, will give Australian universities a critical framework for engagement and a coherent focus for action, enabling them to demonstrate realities of engagement ‘on the ground’ in their respective universities that can then be managed and developed.  Fiona Nash, Strategic Adviser Regional Development, Charles Sturt University (representing the lead regionally-based institution for the Carnegie trial) highlighted the specific challenges for universities located in the regions and commented on the ‘collaborative’ rather than competitive nature of the Carnegie system.

The Leadership Forum captured something of the delegate voice (below) around key issues that would feed into these pilot projects:

The need for critically engaged universities
“Our universities must play their part in improving the environment, local education and health and community outcomes.”
“Universities must have ‘civic’ responsibility – producing ‘civic citizens’ in how staff and students interact with society.”
“Our universities must connect with our communities.”
“The focus of universities needs to be on addressing pressing 21st Century challenges – political, economic, social and technical.”
“Our Universities must provide value for money for students and the tax payer, economic benefits for students and personal benefits that accrue.”
“We need to become an ‘Incubation of society’ – a ‘lab’ for the testing of ideas and experimentation of future scenarios to improve the ‘livability’ of regions.”
“Universities must engage with, inform and build democracy – they are one of the few places that can facilitate public discourse on democratic values.”

Recognition and incentives
“Universities should resource and respect the workload modelling.”
“They need to facilitate a shared discourse on the role and value of engagement.”
“Universities need to profile ‘excellent’ engagement internally and externally.”
“Universities should adopt new career pathways reflecting engagement.”
“Universities should prioritise working with early career academics who are particularly receptive to the emergent engagement agenda.”

Benefits to universities (and academics) from engaging with community.
“Universities must adopt engagement strategies that identify and tackle the ‘real issues’ facing our society – economic, social, environmental and health well-being.”
Engagement with our communities helps break down ivory tower barriers.”
“Engagement helps integrate students into the local community which is important not least because of the diversity of students.”
“Engagement helps build opportunities for students for work placements and creates global citizens amongst our academic community.”
“Engagement produces real outcomes for students in terms of employment and future life chances; lifelong learning as both instrumentalism and as a value in its own right.”
“Engagement allows us to hear what our communities are thinking which enables our universities to respond with appropriate events as well as meaningful learning and research programs.”
“Engagement attracts partnership funding.”

Challenges in making and measuring engagement.
“There is a danger that different contexts can lead to bland measurements.”
“The focus needs to be more on the impact beyond the campus and beyond industry to encompass all the communities that the university serves.”
“University strategies should align to MISSION.  The challenge for current measuring systems is to get them to think beyond industry engagement to include the wider ‘civic’ community as well as education for a social purpose.”
“Global measurements are very broad and ignore the strength of unity in diversity within different regions.”
“Research needs to be measured both as a form of impact and engagement and in relation to learning and teaching for a social purpose.”.

Engagement practices that universities would want to develop, measure and communicate
“Engagement practices should be about learning for a social result and is the means by which universities are accountable to the people.”
“Engagement practices need to position universities as ‘Anchor institutions’ in their own region.”
“Evaluation frameworks such as the Carnegie Classification Engagement system should be adapted to the Australian context to reflect Australian priorities such as engagement with First Peoples, Volunteering and they should enable a critically engaged curriculum to emerge.”
“Engagement practices should measure both quantitative and qualitative data – there is a need to change mindsets in academia and government as to the value of qualitative data.”

The 2019 UA Engagement Australia Leadership Forum highlighted the need for Australian universities to reclaim their critical civic role in framing our institutional purpose for the sector we all cherish.  Engagement Australia would like to thank everyone who took part in the Leadership Forum: From Agency to Action, responding to and sharing in this important agenda in 2019.

If your institute isn’t a current member you will find details of how to become a member via our website https://engagementaustralia.org.au/become-a-member/