Community engagement in higher education: trends, practices and policies✎
Last modified on 21 July 2021
While this report was drafted before the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, the current crisis arguably makes the topic of community engagement more important than ever. The arguments presented in relation to the dimensions, good practices and benefits of community engagement will be highly relevant to policymakers and university leaders developing plans for the recovery and development of higher education in the post-crisis period.
A re-emerging policy agenda
Universities have always interacted with their surrounding communities and responded to societal needs. There is evidence that universities play a key role in supporting economic
development and the well-being of citizens, and that the benefits of higher education are not limited to students and graduates but extend across society. Since the late 20th century, there has been a re-emergence of interest in the societal role played by universities. The expectation that universities should contribute to social and economic development has become known as the ‘third mission’ of higher education.
In practice, however, the third mission of higher education has focused on the economic role and impacts of universities. The role of the university in strengthening democratic values and civic engagement, addressing the needs of vulnerable groups, contributing to cultural development, informing public policy and addressing large-scale social challenges has not been nearly as prominent a priority.
The broader societal contribution of higher education is now re-emerging as a policy priority
in many countries, due to increasing societal challenges worldwide. In addition to the ‘grand challenges’ of climate change, migration and ageing societies faced worldwide, societies worldwide have experienced increasing income inequality, decreasing social cohesion, declining trust toward political institutions and a rise in populist attitudes.
Universities are not only called upon to respond to these challenges, but are themselves affected by declining public trust with regard to their legitimacy and their impartiality as experts (reflected in rising ‘science denial’ and ‘expert rejection’). In this context, the engagement of universities with their communities to address societal needs cannot be considered a trivial policy concern.
The effects of the COVID-19 crisis will arguably further reinforce the priority of community
engagement. During the COVID-19 pandemic, stories quickly emerged of the ways in which
universities around the world had mobilised their knowledge and resources to respond rapidly to the crisis by addressing a range of societal needs. The question of how universities can contribute to social and economic recovery in the post-COVID-19 period is likely to be at the top of policymakers’ agendas in the years to come.
Existing policies and practices
Around the world, a number of policies and initiatives exist to support universities’ broader
societal contributions. The topic as become increasingly prominent in the policies and programmes of transnational institutions (the EU, UN and OECD), as well as at national and university level. While a range of terms such as ‘civic’, ‘public’, ‘regional’ and ‘societal’ engagement are employed in such contexts, this report argues that all of these can be considered synonyms for community engagement as defined in the report.
Community engagement can be misunderstood as focusing on charitable actions and ‘good
neighbourliness’ between a university and its immediate local community. The concept is
in fact much broader in scope and meaning. It encompasses all of the university’s core
activities, and potentially involves local, regional, national and international dimensions.
Many European universities are already community-engaged in this broader sense, and the
report features illustrative good practices of such engagement from both Europe and the
United States. Community engagement practices are presented according to five thematic
dimensions of a ‘whole university’ approach to community engagement. These can be
summarised as follows:
- Teaching and learning – in which the most common form is community-based learning (or ‘service learning’), a teaching methodology that combines classroom instruction, community service, student reflection and civic responsibility.
- Research – in which the most common form is community-based research, a collaborative form of research that addresses a community-identified need, validates community knowledge, and contributes to social change. Another form is citizen science, whereby citizens participate in scientific research by ‘crowdsourcing’ data or through their full inclusion in all stages of research.
- Service and knowledge exchange – whereby academic staff provide consultancy and capacity-building for community groups, or contribute as experts in economic and political debates.
- Student initiatives – whereby students directly address the needs of external communities by launching their own community engagement activities, either via student organisations or through activism and advocacy initiatives.
- University-level engagement – whereby universities open up their facilities to the community (including as venues for cultural and social activity, or as providers of other public services) and provide open access to educational resources.
Challenges and obstacles
Higher education systems face significant pressures, as a result of which community
engagement is often treated as a low priority. These pressures include global competition
in higher education, decreasing levels of public funding, increased scrutiny of universities’
performance, and the pressure to prioritise economic development activities.
Universities also face internal challenges in relation to the way community engagement is
addressed at the university management level. Community engagement takes different
forms in different academic disciplines, and the diversity of these forms makes it complex to coordinate community engagement across an entire institution. Another challenge exists at the level of the acceptance of engagement by academics as a legitimate knowledge activity (i.e. as a ‘normal’ part of teaching and research), since changing academic practice is a long-term process. Any effort to institutionalise community engagement will thus require time, coordination and support.
Finally, the management of community engagement (whether at the level of the higher education system or within individual universities) is further complicated by the difficulty of measuring it quantitatively. This falls into a broader discussion on the problems of relying on metrics for performance assessments in research and higher education; however, in the case of community engagement the problem is particularly acute as such activities are, by definition, context-specific.
Policy recommendations to address the challenges
Providing due recognition and support for community engagement at policy level could allow universities to mobilise their resources to achieve a much greater positive impact in addressing Europe’s pressing societal needs. The gradual rise of references to "grand challenges’, ‘societal impact’, ‘relevance’ and ‘engagement’ in the context of higher
education and research policy suggests that Europe currently enjoys a unique opportunity
to facilitate such support. This report presents policy approaches and concrete recommendations to support community engagement in higher education across Europe.
These can be summarised as follows:
Four possible policy approaches exist to support community engagement
Policymakers wishing to support community engagement can employ various policy approaches, presented here from the most to the least comprehensive:
- Transforming framework conditions (system-level embedding of community engagement in higher education and research).
- Targeted supportive policies (increasing the prevalence and quality of community engagement activities at system level).
- Incorporating community engagement into existing programmes (encouraging community engagement activities at the level of individual universities).
- Status quo/bottom-up initiatives (no specific policies other than general references to ‘relevance’ and ‘impact’).
This report recommends that Approaches 2 and 3 should be considered as a first phase in
supporting the institutionalisation of community engagement, with Approach 1 being an
aspirational future scenario.
A coherent policy approach will need to create synergies with other policy areas
and existing programmes This also entails ensuring joined-up governance across other policy areas (e.g. connecting higher education, research, regional development, etc.) and ensuring that the policy is embedded into existing initiatives within higher education and research policy. For example, community engagement can be connected to both the European Green Deal and the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. The policy would also benefit from establishing a clear relationship with other ‘third mission’ priorities within higher education policy, i.e. by distinguishing between economically driven engagement and community engagement.
Community engagement can also be incorporated as a priority or dimension within existing
policies, programmes and initiatives in higher education and research. The table below
provides an overview of potential synergies between community engagement and existing
policy priorities, as well as with existing programmes and initiatives of the European
The European Universities Initiative could play a key role in pushing forward the community engagement agenda. This stems from the initiative’s focus on connecting academics, researchers and students with regions, cities, businesses, civil society and citizens to cocreate solutions to the most pressing societal challenges linked to Sustainable
Development Goals. A tool such as U-Multirank could also consider the feasibility and
benefits of expanding its existing indicator related to Community Service Learning
(currently limited to one subject group), in order to gain greater insight into the prevalence
of institutionalised community-based learning at European universities.
Policy levers should focus on building capacities for community engagement
Since community engagement is context-specific and involves a wide range of activities and stakeholders, it would be inappropriate at an initial stage to employ policy levers that rely on compliance with prescribed standards, or on the measurement of quantitative targets , since such measures would be unlikely to result in the desired outcome.
Prescribing the type or volume of community engagement activities that should be carried
out would at best result in reactive rather than proactive measures by universities that would focus on meeting targets rather than the real societal needs of the communities with which the universities engaged. The optimal policy levers would be those that address capacity-building, thereby supporting institutional change and improvement.
Joint action is required from the European Commission, EU Member States, international stakeholders and universities
The report concludes with a series of specific policy recommendations for different stakeholders. These recommendations follow a similar structure, and include the following elements (whether at transnational, national or institutional level):
- Establishing the societal role of universities as a priority within future policy frameworks and/or institutional strategies.
- Developing new policies and programmes to support this objective, and/or incorporating community engagement into existing programmes, tools and initiatives where potential exists for synergy.
- Consolidating, strengthening and creating synergies with existing thematic networks and initiatives to support community engagement in higher education.
The report concludes that in order to provide community engagement with greater recognition and support at policy and university levels, the necessary approach must be gradual, developmental and qualitative, rather than rushed, top-down and driven by