Writing an effective strategy for local engagement is difficult.
Read through the following statements, taken from a UK university’s strategic plan, and see if anything looks familiar:
As a vibrant knowledge hub, we have an important role to play both locally and globally. The university is a large employer and economic contributor in the region.
We aim to build a clear and distinctive reputation for excellence through strategic engagement and communication with our regional, national and international communities.
We will help the region address its challenges and opportunities while incorporating its many possibilities in education and research.
Could this be from your university’s strategic plan or external engagement strategy? I actually lied at the start: these statements aren’t actually from a single university. They’re a jumbled mix of statements from five universities from across the UK nations, and from various mission groups. But if they look familiar this could be a problem.
A Barnum effect?
Speaking at recent events, I’ve asked the audience – consisting mostly of HE professionals – whether these statements about engagement could be from their strategic plan. Nearly everyone raises their hand.
This reminds me, perhaps a little uncharitably, of the Barnum effect. Emerging from a series of psychological experiments in the 1940s, it involves showing participants – for example, a class of students – an individual personality statement based on a handwriting sample or a piece of written work. Statements include:
- You have a great need for other people to like and admire you.
- You have a tendency to be critical of yourself.
- You have a great deal of unused capacity which you have not turned to your advantage.
Because the assessment statements are so vague, people interpret their own meaning, and the statements become personal to them. Nearly all participants believed their assessment to be uncannily accurate.
There is a growing expectation for universities to be regionally engaged and this follows from a recognition of the role universities can play in their area and with local communities. The interest and enthusiasm around the Civic University Commission is evidence of this.
This local role isn’t new. Many universities have had engagement as a core part of their mission since their founding. But in recent years the government has focused on the role of cities and regions in devolved policymaking, as well as the institutions, such as universities, that can help steer this.
As regional plans – from City Deals to Local Industrial Strategies – shape the policy environment university planners need to factor the issue of place more highly. Often, however, the result is often strangely place-neutral: a series of engagement strategies and university planning documents that are largely indistinguishable from one another.
Place, positioning and partnerships
There are positives to be drawn from my (admittedly unscientific) scan of university engagement strategies. Many recognise how the local and international activities of universities reinforce each other. Universities are bridges for their towns, cities and regions to reach the world (and vice versa), and this offer to connect the local with the global is made loud and clear.
In my work for the British Council on universities and cities working together on internationalisation, I found that effective planning was built on a deep understanding of place, positioning and partnerships. It is long-term, deliberate and part of a wider vision of the future of the local area. Universities often have a clear sense of their positioning, but articulating this in the context of place and partnerships can be tricky.
University strategies are not the place to detail individual activities and actions. But a greater degree of specificity is often needed, and this is likely to mean dropping some of the broad statements to focus on a few areas of institutional strength, perhaps joining up with other local universities.
Rooting strategies in place, positioning and partnerships is a good start. The Civic University Commission’s progress report notes that measuring civic engagement is not widespread (but does highlight Cardiff University’s use of quantitative and qualitative analysis). Further work on this is also important.
So too is taking a longer-term perspective. Many universities proudly promote their anchor presence in their area, but their plans are often on five or ten-year cycles. The city of Amsterdam has a 200-year strategy. Although this particular timeline is prompted by climate change (as an official said, “we don’t want to just let the water flow and all have to move to Germany”), thinking about what a university strategy spanning one or two centuries may look like is perhaps a useful exercise.
A test when looking at your university engagement strategy: if you remove your institution’s name, and mix it up in a pot with other anonymised strategies, is it clear which strategy is yours?