Dean Forbes



University Libraries SA

Adelaide, 1/12/09

Professor Dean Forbes

Deputy Vice-Chancellor (International)

Flinders University

Good afternoon.  Thank you for the opportunity to talk with you about community engagement in universities.

The primary responsibilities of universities are focused on knowledge creation through research, and knowledge transfer through education. However university staff and students have a secret life.  They engage with local, national, and international communities through a wide range of activities.  

Community engagement is one term used in universities.  There are many other terms in use.  They include outreach, community service, knowledge transfer, third stream activities, and public engagement.  Some universities have a specific focus, such as on industry, rather than communities. I will stick with community engagement.  It is the term used by the main university organization in this area, the Australian Universities Community Engagement Alliance (AUCEA).


The increasing prominence of community engagement has resulted in a period of rapid change in the way we conceptualise and think about community engagement.

I think there are three main models of community engagement.

Model A is:

“…forms of knowledge transfer where universities share their knowledge with communities and industry to enhance economic, cultural or regional development, industry-business linkages or sustainability” (Barlow 2005 p 40)

This expressess a top-down view of the university’s role.  Universities develop knowledge, and transfer it to the community to improve conditions.  It is a view of knowledge transfer or outreach often associated with research projects.

Model B introduces more complexity into the relationship between universities and communities. Community engagement is defined as:

“The generation, use, application, and exploitation of knowledge and other university capabilities outside academic environments”  (Molas-Gallart, Salter, Patel, Scott and Duran 2002)

It is not so explicitly top down, and allows the possibility of knowledge being generated outside the university environment.  An example might be through working with industry or local government on innovation in a particular area of activity, such as through the delivery of services, or the adaptation of a product for sale in the market.

Model C recasts community engagement, positioning it at the centre of university activities:

“A new social contract between society and the university is moving the idea of engagement from its traditional association with outreach into the very conduct of its research and teaching…The new contract autonomy can be sustained only to the extent that universities become engaged in the joint production of knowledge with their communities” (Gibbons 2005 p 1)

This is the most challenging model of community engagement, because it implies that the community has a role in shaping the creation and development of knowledge in universities.  This may be relatively easy for a social scientist to accept, but rather more challenging for a nanotechnologist or a lecturer in surgery. 

We could allocate all the known community engagement activities in SA universities (and I emphasise known) across these three models.  Most would fit into the first, some into the second, and a few in the third. 

Equally, it is important that universities do engage in a range of activities.  There is no implicit belief, at least on my behalf, that one model of engagement is superior to the other.  It’s horses for courses. 


For the next few minutes I want to talk about Flinders community engagement activities.

CE has been a significant part of the university’s activities for many years.  The University commissioned the National Institute of Labour Studies to undertake surveys of what it called community service activities in 1994 and then again in 2002. 

Community service was defined as:

“Any service provided by University staff in addition to their normal teaching, research and scholarship which is intended to benefit one of the communities we serve and in which staff apply their scholarly or professional expertise.  This service can be either paid or unpaid” (Cully, Richardson, Ilsey and Miller-Lewis 2003 p1)

Implicit in the term community service, of course, is the overall sense that this is something the university staff provide to the community.  It fits with Model A above.

NILS had survey responses from 412 staff, both academic and general staff in the HEO 7-9 ranges.  Some 88% of females and 92% of males were involved in at least one type of community service. 

85% of University Library staff surveyed were engaged in community service.  The main areas of participation were in continuing and professional education (77%), and professional associations (46%).

Strategic Planning

Community engagement was first incorporated into Flinders strategic planning in 2004 in the revised version of Flinders Strategic Priorities and Future Directions (FSPFD) 2001-20010. 

Community engagement is also a key area of the Inspiring Flinders Future Strategic Plan 2010-2014

Key Strategy 1: Building Supportive Communities.  By being outwardly engaged, with strong links to our stakeholders and serving the communities in which we operate.

Strategic guidance is given through the Community Engagement Reference Group (CERG) which meets four times a year.  It includes representatives from each of the four Faculties, Yunggorendi, the Library, the Art Museum, the Careers and Employers Liaison Centre, the Marketing and Communications Office and the Southern Knowledge Transfer Partnerships program (of which more in a moment).

CERG’s role is:

•    Advise on strategies and priorities

•    Provide a mechanism for keeping staff informed about CE activities across the university and build upon synergies

•    Facilitate good practice and professional development

The University Library, through its representative Gillian Dooley, is a regular and valued contributor to CERG.

Southern Knowledge Transfer Partnership (SKTP)

The SKTP commenced earlier this year.  It is supported by a grant of $3.25 million from the Federal Government’s Diversity and Structural Adjustment Fund, supplemented by an additional $1.4 million in-kind contribution from Flinders and its local partners.  The ‘Southern’ in the title refers to the four southern local councils: Marion, Mitcham, Onkaparinga and Holdfast Bay.

At its core, the SKTP is about building genuine two-way knowledge transfer partnerships between Flinders and key entities in the South, such as the local councils, government agencies, businesses, schools, colleges and non-government organizations.  In the terminology I used earlier in the presentation, this is a Model C initiative.  Knowledge is expected to transfer from Flinders to its communities in the South, and from them to the university, through genuine partnerships.

Flinders contribution to the South will occur through staff involvement, student placements and mentoring, and through a community fellowships program.  In turn, Flinders needs input from the southern communities to renovate and refresh its curricula, and give direction and provide an output into its research programs. 


There are three important challenges in managing community engagement activity in universities.

First, how is it possible to know the extent of the community engagement initiatives being undertaken across the university, and then ensure that they are in line with the university’s strategic objectives? 

Second, how can universities continue to resource community engagement activities?  The government has consistently ruled it out as a recipient of dedicated funding, except for occasional one-off grants.

Third, how can universities assure the quality of community engagement initiatives?  What is good/best practice?  How do you determine the appropriate methodology for engaging with the community?  Eg, choosing whether it best fits from Model 1, Model 2 or Model 3?  And how can we measure the impact of community engagement, both at the project and university level?

Finally, despite my subtitle, community engagement can no longer be characterized as the secret life of universities.


Barlow, Snow 2005 “Outreach is on the money” The Australian, 20 July, p 40.

Cully, Mark, Sue Richardson, Diana Ilsley and Lauren Miller-Lewis 2003 Community Service Report 2002, National Institute of Labour Studies, Flinders University, Adelaide.

Forbes, Dean and Stephanie Fahey 2009 “Challenges for universities in international knowledge transfer partnerships”, Association of Public and Land-grant Universities, Commission on International Education, Colorado Springs, July 2009.

Gibbons, Michael 2005 “Engagement with the Community: the emergence of a new social contract between society and science” Presentation to the Griffith University Community Engagement Workshop, Brisbane, 4 March 2005.

Molas-Gallart, J, A. Salter, P. Patel, A. Scott, and X. Duran 2002 Measuring third Stream Activities: Final Report to the Russell Group of Universities, Science and Technology Policy Research Unit, University of Sussex, Brighton.