Engagement as Interconnectedness
Interconnectedness describes the relationship (in tension) of academics engaging with those outside of the university while simultaneously linking back to the university. Interconnectedness is operationalised along two dimensions: (1) Articulation which describes the extent to which engagement activities link to the university's strategic objectives and to external constituents and (2) the academic core which describes the extent to which engagement activities link to the university's core functions of research and teaching and learning. The study found that it is possible to develop a set of indicators to assess the extent to which university engagement activities are (i) articulated and (ii) strengthening the core functions of universities. The concept of interconnectedness provides a useful framework for operationalising research on engagement activities. The project was able to assign an interconnectedness score to each engagement activity. The score denotes whether such activities can be described as interconnected – the activity effectively manages the tension between connecting to those outside of the university and with the core functions of the university – or whether such activities are disconnected – the activity is weakly connected to external communities or weakly connected to knowledge production and transfer. The indicators and their graphical representation provide a useful tool for identifying patterns, and for revealing and confirming informative dimensions of university engagement activities at the two universities. Both universities have expressed interest in using the indicators to record, tracks and assess their engagement activities. Future advocacy work that will form part of HERANA Phase 3 will seek to promote a broader acceptance of this methodology at African universities. The research component of HERANA Phase 3 will explore further the usefulness of the indicators to universities, and work towards additional refinement and more automated data collection methods. The indicators reveal a mixed picture at both universities – in both cases there are exemplary projects that can be described as interconnected and there are also projects that are clearly disconnected. Articulation scores at both universities were stronger than the strengthening the academic core scores. However, the preponderance of engagement activities in the sample were ongoing, and this creates the possibility of these activities’ academic core ratings improving over time. The interconnectedness of engagement activities also appeared to be in alignment with the institutional type and focus of each of the two universities. Engagement activities at NMMU, as a comprehensive university, showed more variation in the academic core scores, reflecting a mix of research with and teach and learning activities. There was also evidence of a strong residual culture of service learning and outreach-type engagement activities which fared poorly when it came to linking with research. On the other hand, at Makerere, with its drive to become a research-intensive university, there was evidence that engagement activities linked more consistently with research rather than with teaching and learning functions. This research project suggests that engagement between university academics and those external to the university is active. The nature of this engagement, however, varies considerably and, more portentously, based on the findings of this study, the degree to which such engagement activities can be said to be strengthening the university as key knowledge producing institution is uneven and too frequently marginal.