Before the Project

There’s a tension in universities, I believe partly due to funding, partly due to imposed obligations and expectations, and partly due to self-interest (plus other things no doubt).

We want to research.

We want to teach.

We want to be part of the local community.

To teach necessitates, to some extent, new research; to research universities often need participants; to reach those participants requires investment from the university. Investment in time, resources, knowledge. Building connections, relationships, good will.

And this is where the tension lies.

To build those relationships, the good will, the trust, needs investment from the university. It needs to engage, explain, understand.


To connect in meaningful ways to the local community – and I use the word community here to mean the local area as a whole.


To explain in meaningful ways what the university does, the research it undertakes, all the ways in which we can help our community.


To listen in meaningful ways to the community, truly listen to their needs, desires, values. To hear all the community, the ones seldom heard as well as the ones we already know.

We need to do all this in order to build the connection. And yet often this is done in a less than ideal way. Not because the researchers don’t want to reach out, to help. Not because the university wants to simply pay lip-service to the grand strategies and promises in their mission statements. But because of the tensions stated at the start of this piece.

It takes time and energy and resources and funding to build meaningful and trusting relationships. And often, in the rush of having a great research project that you absolutely know will benefit the community in many ways, we forget the part we should have been doing before the project was even conceived.

Building these types of relationships takes not only time, resources, funding, it demands all these things with no expectation of return, or at least with no expectation of short-term, quick returns. Building relationships is a long-term investment strategy.

How to address this? It’s easy to say more funding. But money isn’t everything, although one idea I had was akin to companies who pay for their employees to spend time volunteering – allow time/funding for researchers to go out and give free community workshops. For instance, I know local third sector organisations would benefit hugely from workshops helping them identify and discuss evaluation methods in order to make a stronger case for future funding. However, although our researchers would love to give regular workshops it is impossible with their other workloads, they simply haven’t got the time or resources to do it.

Addressing this is one of the reasons for this PhD, how can we creatively engage with our local community in meaningful ways, with limited time and resources.