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Ivory tower meets real world: Benefits of education engaging with community

Sue Kilpatrick

This special theme issue is timely in that it contributes evidence to current Australian policy discourse on community engagement by educational institutions, particularly universities. This discourse is arguably driven by economic imperatives - government wants to know how to get the maximum benefit from investment in education. Higher education policy in Australia has been criticised for thrusting universities into a culture of free markets and private economic interest, leading to counterproductive competition, corporatism and consumerism of the sector (Marginson, 2003). Community engagement and the benefits that follow are being used to justify public investment in regional university campuses (Department of Transport and Regional Services, 2003).

Some schools and vocational education and training institutions in Australia and elsewhere have been quietly reaping the benefits of working closely with their communities for some time (see for example, Kilpatrick, Johns, Mulford, Falk & Prescott, 2002). Rural communities are often fiercely protective of their schools, which may be the only public infrastructure/service presence in small communities, and are keen to engage. The establishment of the Queensland School for Travelling Show Children, mentioned in Danaher, Moriarty and Danaher's (2003) paper, confirms the energy which rural communities can put into ensuring adequate school education for their children. However, not all school systems encourage community engagement and not all schools routinely seek out opportunities to work with their communities.

The paper by McConachie and Simpson (2003) illustrates the mind shift required of universities if they are to engage with non-traditional clients. This is an imperative for the newer regional universities in Australia which are located in areas without a culture of participation in higher education. McConachie and Simpson describe how engagement with non-traditional clients is addressed through social entrepreneurship, the proactive attitude and actions that educational institutions must demonstrate in engaging with the external - their communities - that is a recurring theme in the articles that make up this special issue. The systems in which educational institutions operate must be flexible so that individual institutions can be socially entrepreneurial.

This is the dilemma faced by the Japanese school system. Oyanagi's (2003) paper confirms the special relationship that smaller rural communities can develop with their schools. This special relationship allows school and community to take action toward realisation of a shared vision for the future. Oyanagi illustrates how social entrepreneurship by effective school-community partnerships can mould opportunities, such as the Japanese educational reform, for their own purposes, a phenomenon observed by Kilpatrick et al. (2002) in effective Australian rural school-community partnerships.

Networks are recognised as a core part of the social capital of a community (for example, Woolcock & Narayan, 2000), and a key to community capacity building and community development. Danaher, Moriarty and Danaher (2003) describe how their research has built networks for show people - an isolated community that travels through many communities without necessarily linking into those communities. Leffler and Svedberg (2003) highlight the development of networks through interactions between those inside and outside schools. They draw on the concept of communities of practice to explain how learning networks operate through interactions. The purpose of Leffler and Svedberg's learning networks is to build the capacity of individual students to be entrepreneurial. They note that, for an individual, being entrepreneurial, or having enterprising qualities, means more than having appropriate networks. Students need a bundle of attributes and skills such as self-reliance and the ability to take risks, which are akin to what Falk and Kilpatrick (2000) describe as social capital identity resources. These resources are the ability and willingness of people to engage in action for mutual or community benefit.

Leffler and Svedberg (2003), like McConachie and Simpson (2003) and Oyanagi (2003), are primarily concerned with developing regional capacity through providing individuals with appropriate experiences within formal education curricula. They do acknowledge, however, the need for schools to engage with industry and other actors in the local community and ask who has the responsibility for creating meeting places. Responsibility for creating places to interact has been addressed in work on rural community interactional infrastructure, whose authors argue that this is a joint responsibility of educational institutions and their local community, with local government and the educational institutions having particular responsibility to be proactive, or socially entrepreneurial (Kilpatrick & Loechel, 2004). The University of South Australia, Whyalla Campus has risen to the challenge and provided meeting places where it engages with its community, as noted in Penman and Ellis's (2003) contribution to this special theme issue.

Penman and Ellis (2003) describe how a regional university builds social and human capital in its community by engagement outside the formal curriculum. The U3A and health programs analysed in Penman and Ellis's paper are perhaps the kind of extra benefit to regional areas that the Australian government is hoping for when it urges universities to engage with their communities. Here we see community capacity building through transformative education that develops self-efficacy and opens up new networks to the program participants, all features of the Swedish project that is the subject of Leffler and Svedberg's (2003) paper. Equally importantly, the Whyalla programs generate a long list of benefits to the university. This concept of mutual benefit should be at the heart of any educational institution- community partnership and should be a guiding principle in engagement activities.

Educational institutions, especially universities, should not be separate, exclusive places that exclude the real world. The economic imperative of preparation of students for the world of work can be addressed in creative ways that build the human and social capacity of communities and of schools and universities. This theme issue provides evidence of how social entrepreneurial and capacity building activity on the part of educational institutions to engage and develop their communities can deliver mutual benefits.


Danaher, G. R., Moriarty, B. J., & Danaher, P. A. (2003). Social entrepreneurship and capacity building in linking Australian show people and regional and rural communities. Queensland Journal of Educational Research, 19(2), 59-66. http://education.curtin.edu.au/iier/qjer/qjer19/danaher-g.html

Department of Transport and Regional Services (2003). Community and campus: The benefits of engagement. Canberra, ACT: Commonwealth of Australia.

Falk, I., & Kilpatrick, S. (2000). What is social capital? A study of interaction in a rural community. Sociologia Ruralis, 40(1), 87-110.

Kilpatrick, S., Johns, S., Mulford, B., Falk, I., & Prescott, L. (2002). More than an education: Leadership of school- community partnerships. Report on Project UT-31A. Canberra, ACT: Rural Industries Research and Development Corporation. [viewed 4 Jun 2004, verified 3 Sep 2004] http://www.rirdc.gov.au/reports/HCC/02-055.pdf

Kilpatrick, S., & Loechel, B. (2004). Interactional infrastructure in rural communities: Matching training needs and provision. Rural Society, 14(1), 4-21.

Leffler, E., & Svedberg, G. (2003). Enterprise in Swedish rural schools: Capacity building through learning networks. Queensland Journal of Educational Research, 19(2), 83-99. http://education.curtin.edu.au/iier/qjer/qjer19/leffler.html

Marginson, S. (2003, December 2). Markets in higher education: National and global competition. Radford Lecture presented at the New Zealand Association for Research in Education/Australian Association for Research in Education conference, Auckland, New Zealand.

McConachie, J., & Simpson, J. (2003). Social entrepreneurship: An Australian university transforms a regional community through diversity and innovation. Queensland Journal of Educational Research, 19(2), 95-111. http://education.curtin.edu.au/iier/qjer/qjer19/mcconachie.html

Oyanagi, W. (2003). Difficulties and problems in building schools based on community needs: A case study of educational reforms at Nara Prefecture in Japan. Queensland Journal of Educational Research, 19(2), 67-82. http://education.curtin.edu.au/iier/qjer/qjer19/oyanagi.html

Penman, J., & Ellis, B. (2003). Mutualism in Australian regional university-community links: The Whyalla experience. Queensland Journal of Educational Research, 19(2), 119-136. http://education.curtin.edu.au/iier/qjer/qjer19/penman.html

Woolcock, M., & Narayan, D. (2000). Social capital: Implications for development theory, research, and policy. World Bank Research Observer, 15(2), 225-49.

Author details: Sue Kilpatrick is Co-ordinator of Research and Learning in Regional Australia at the University of Tasmania. She has researched and published extensively on social capital and community capacity building through learning.

Please cite as: Kilpatrick, S. (2003). Ivory tower meets real world: Benefits of education engaging with community. Queensland Journal of Educational Research, 19(2), 137-141. http://education.curtin.edu.au/iier/qjer/qjer19/kilpatrick.html

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Created 3 Sep 2004. Last correction: 31 Dec 2004.
URL: http://education.curtin.edu.au/iier/qjer/qjer19/kilpatrick.html