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Mutualism in Australian regional university-community links: The Whyalla experience

Joy Penman and Bronwyn Ellis
The University of South Australia, Whyalla Campus, has been involved in various community engagements including health educational seminars which enable community members, including many senior citizens who can be valuable social agents, to be successful learners and so become a resource that increases the human and social capital of the community. The health-related seminars enhance the capacities of participants to identify their problems, use available opportunities, develop self-efficacy and pass on what they learn. These activities contribute to positively transforming the relationship between university and community and so benefit the campus as well as the participants.

The University of South Australia, Whyalla Campus, is the only regional university campus in South Australia. It has sought to be responsive to the needs of its immediate community and of other, more physically distant communities through innovative ways of providing education. Over the years the campus has pioneered the flexible delivery of undergraduate nursing education, established a generic bridging program and been involved in collaborative ventures with the Spencer Gulf Institute of Technical and Further Education. It has also contributed to the professional development of graduates working in the human services areas.

As well as providing facilities that are used by the wider community, the campus has deployed its human resources of staff knowledge and skills to enrich community social capital through dynamic networks connecting with diverse groups. These are maintained and expanded through the sustained sharing of knowledge and the provision of mutual support, thus transforming local people into a community resource impacting positively on individual and community wellbeing. In engaging with community members, the campus contributes to the learning and capacity building of the individuals and groups involved. At the same time, individual and collective capacity on the campus is built through the extension of staff experience and networks.

The university has a genuine interest in the health and wellbeing of the community. It acknowledges that educational opportunities are limited, if not absent, in rural and remote areas for various reasons, such as distance and resource constraints. It accepts that, along with other sectors of education, it has "a major responsibility in ensuring that rural people have the capacities and skills necessary to contribute [to] and be rewarded for the development of their own community" (Mannion, 1996, p. 3). Whyalla Campus is a vital part of enabling the university to fulfil this role and is seen in the regions as

a regional university with a clear commitment to contribute to economic, environmental and social development in collaboration with local councils and community groups, government agencies and industry. (University of South Australia, 2002, p. 2)
In addition, people view the university as a resource, an authority or leader in health and education, and so interest groups approach the university seeking to find answers to their questions and new learning opportunities. The university, in turn, believing in and building on the strengths available within the community, endeavours to address community issues and problems and to contribute to building stronger, healthier communities. However, as we show below, the flow of benefits is not one-way.

After considering community development through capacity building, ideally a transformative learning experience and part of university-community engagement (see also McConachie & Simpson, 2003), we consider some of the Whyalla Campus initiatives and their potential for capacity building, describing two areas of such university-community interrelationships. These initiatives are mutually beneficial to individuals involved, both within and outside the university, and to the organisations with which they are associated. This article draws out some of these examples of mutualism.


Capacity building is a crucial component of the complex concept of community development. Building capacity through increasing individual and collective efficacy has the potential to transform communities. This article focuses particularly on university involvement in developing healthier communities through new initiatives (see also McConachie & Simpson, 2003).

Community development

Community development is "a process in which a community grows or builds its capacity to protect and enhance the health and wellbeing of its members" (Mitchell, 2000, p. 161). While regional campuses have an important part to play in the economies of their region (Garlick, 1998), their contributions to community development also involve meeting the needs of occupations in the region, researching issues of importance to the region and engaging in a diversity of community service activities (Nairn, 1997). The capacity that is built during the process includes an array of resources, among which social resources that foster health and wellbeing are of prime concern in the public health sphere.

In discussing health development and the empowerment of communities and individuals, Baum (2000) uses Oakley's distinction between two types of community member participation, namely as a means to an end (or instrumental participation) and as an end in itself; the latter (structural participation) is closer to what has traditionally been thought of as community development, and focuses on involving and empowering the community (see also Leffler & Svedberg, 2003). Empowerment refers to "the ability of people to gain understanding and control over personal, social, economic, and political forces in order to take action to improve their life situations" (Israel, Checkoway, Schulz & Zimmerman, 1994, p. 152), and is essential for sustainable community development.

Capacity building

Community capacity can be seen as "the combined influence of a community's commitment, resources and skills that can be deployed to build on community strengths and address community problems and opportunities" (The Aspen Institute/Rural Economic Policy Program, 1996, p. 1). Capacity building, according to a definition relating to countries, but also applicable to communities, is the "long term, voluntary process of increasing the ability...to identify and solve its own potential problems and risks and to maximise opportunities" (Australian Environmental Impact Assessment Network, 2003, para. 1). This involves innovation, recognising individual worth, contributing to improved quality of life and sharing experiences and good practice (Murphy & Thomas, 2003). Actively involved community members serve as the "mainstays of community development and social cohesion" and constitute "an interesting, active and strong community" (Murphy & Thomas, 2003, p. 3). Who better than community members themselves to understand their needs and possible solutions? As Cavaye (2000) states, "Government cannot build community capacity - only local people can build the capacity of their community. However, public agencies can support and facilitate community capacity building" (cited in Zivkovic, 2002, p. 1; see also Oyanagi, 2003). Universities have such an enabling role in community-driven development.

Individual and community capacity can be built through various approaches, some of which are described in this paper, and which facilitate the development of self- and collective efficacy. Self-efficacy is "the degree of confidence persons have in their ability to perform specific behaviours" (Berkman & Glass, 2000, p. 149). Social support through networks and self-efficacy appear to strengthen each other (Berkman & Glass, 2000, p. 150) and to develop collective efficacy, "a group's shared belief in the efficacy of concerted action required to result in desired outcomes" (Bandura, 1997, p. 477). In short, as people's skills are strengthened and they learn more, change occurs. Some approaches suggested with regard to business- community links can provide ideas for educational institutions (Murphy & Thomas, 2003). At the same time, cautions concerning assessment of impacts are included in Building community capacity (Faculty of Business, Queensland University of Technology, 2001). Initiatives discussed in this article contribute to building the capacity and self-efficacy of the participants.

Transformative learning

Adult education, Mezirow (1991) argues, has the responsibility for facilitating learning that is transformative, involving "reflectively transforming beliefs, attitudes, opinions, and emotional reactions that constitute our meaning schemes or transforming our meaning perspectives (sets of related meaning schemes)" (Mezirow, 1991, pp. 223-224; see also McConachie & Simpson, 2003). Educators challenge learners to:
focus upon and examine the assumptions...that underlie beliefs, feelings, and actions; assess the consequences of these assumptions; identify and explore alternative sets of assumptions; and test the validity of assumptions through effective participation in reflective dialogue. (Mezirow, 1991, p. 224)
Once such change in attitudes has been triggered, behavioural change is likely to follow; in the cases described here, improved health status is a realistic outcome. However, support is needed for people experiencing this process, which can turn their world upside down. University links with community groups need to take this into account. The non-threatening environment provided for the health education sessions is conducive to learning and to supportive relationships.

University-community engagement

This engagement "occurs with the creation of sustainable partnerships between a university and its surrounding communities that enhance the learning experience of students and staff, while simultaneously contributing to the overall health and well being of the local community" (Fairnie & Platt, n.d.; cited in Australian Universities Community Engagement Alliance, 2003, p. 2). The website of the Australian Universities Community Engagement Alliance (AUCEA) (http://www.uws.edu.au/about/adminorg/devint/ord/aucea) contains work in progress towards defining this concept.


Whyalla Campus seeks very much to be an integral part of the wider community, as well as of the university. Many staff members are engaged in community service activities apart from their other academic commitments. In some of these activities, the campus benefits as well as the organisations or groups being assisted; such two-way benefits are summarised later. We now focus on campus engagements with community groups, two examples being sponsorship of the local branch of the University of the Third Age (U3A) and the health educational program of the Discipline of Nursing and Rural Health. The Whyalla U3A has played a role in opening up the campus to the community and in being a catalyst for further community involvement.

Evidence for our conclusions concerning the impact of these initiatives is drawn from a number of sources: participant observation, evaluative written feedback, anecdotal accounts and in-depth interviews with participants.

The University of the Third Age

Each branch of this organisation is "a learning community primarily organised by and for people who can best be described as being in active retirement - 'The Third Age of their Lives'" (Whyalla News for Rural Press Regional Media, 2003, p. 45). These older learners are motivated by the desire to be intellectually and socially active, without the stress of examination requirements. The Whyalla U3A branch was established in 1996, and has been supported by the campus through the provision of venues, assistance with publicity and contributions to the teaching of courses. Over the years course topics have ranged from information skills to introductory Latin ("Uni of Third Age," 2000, p. 2). Course lecturers have included current and retired members of Whyalla Campus staff along with U3A members themselves and others drawn from the local community.

A small project in 2000 (Ellis, 2000) investigated Whyalla U3A members' perceptions of the importance of continuing to learn and of U3A's impact on them. Their responses (N=19), gathered from paper-based surveys distributed to all members (N=45) with the assistance of the U3A committee, related to positive social aspects and enhanced quality of life, as well as to learning opportunities. Two of the founding members, in a more recent interview, stated that their participation in the group had been prompted by a number of reasons: it gave them a "chance to study" that they had not previously had, it gave them something to do, filling in "boring time", it provided a chance to get out and meet people and it kept their minds active. The courses these interviewees had attended were many and diverse, a few being computing, history topics, budgeting and Buddhism. They felt that their learning was enhanced because the members generated the topics. They also commented that they attended sessions because they felt that they belonged.

The interviewees appreciated the informality:

We also have a discussion group where anyone can bring something up; no question is a stupid question...no put downs.
They commented as follows on the impact of their participation:
You realise how lucky you are. You become aware of the situation of others and yourself...

The lecturers are very helpful. They explain things in detail. These are very interesting...for example, the court procedures were explained by a magistrate. We saw different examples of cases...a lady who drove a car without a licence.

Their comments also highlighted the benefits for the campus:
The Philosophy students presented to us their work for assessment. A lecturer commented that he enjoyed teaching us because we asked questions and had much life experience...
These comments exemplify how capacity is built: by becoming aware of resources, developing a wider perspective and recognising one's ability to make a contribution. Some of the education sessions referred to in the following subsection were provided at the request of U3A members.

Health educational program

The health educational program conducted by the campus, working with local schools and organisations, consists of education sessions, health assessment, health-promoting activities and community visits. Here we focus on health education sessions, one of whose aims is to share current information about health-related topics of interest to those attending. We show how the effective transfer of knowledge about lifestyle issues impacts on health.

The Discipline's health sessions are organised in response to requests from various community groups, utilising local experts and community resources, and collaborating with them. Over the past four years, about 500 community members from a variety of community groups have participated. Session topics have included drug abuse, quality use of medications, medical jargon, first aid, and women's and men's health issues.

Participant feedback on the education sessions conducted in the last three years was gained after each session via a seven-item, Likert-type evaluation instrument. The four main sessions were on: 'Medications and the elderly', 'Medical terminology', 'Women's issues' and 'Men's issues'. Participants were asked to indicate their level of agreement with statements describing the seminar as "a pleasant learning experience", "well organised" and "supportive of personal (professional) growth"; the information provided as "relevant, interesting and current"; and the speakers as "appropriate to this session". They were also asked whether they "would be happy to participate in other seminars of interest or relevance". A final question gave the opportunity to make suggestions concerning future topics for discussion, possible improvements and so on. A total of 160 completed questionnaires was received, representing almost all participants. A high proportion of responses was extremely favourable, and indicated an appreciation of the expertise and competence of the facilitators. Evaluation of programs is a vital component: to assess whether aims have been met, to provide guidance for future initiatives and to teach evaluation techniques.

The participants interviewed also highlighted the positive and encouraging impact of the sessions:

I enjoyed the health sessions. They were good for us. They were helpful as we can apply them to our daily lives.

We became aware of things that will be happening as we grow older, for example falling.

We learned how to respond to emergencies, accessing the Internet for information, becoming more aware about my condition...able to accept and manage my disability also. There is room for capacity-building because we are taught how to take care of ourselves.

I think this is part of lifelong learning.... [W]e also pass on the knowledge to others... [This participant elaborated that she had told her daughter, a nurse, about the quality use of medicines.]

This initiative has proved to be useful and empowering. Again, the acquisition of useable knowledge, and the ability to know where to obtain further information, to act on their needs, to share information with others and to become self-sufficient and confident in managing their own conditions, all contribute to realising increased capacity and to improving quality of life.


The Whyalla story shows creative and appropriate approaches taken by the university in responding to the educational needs of rural communities. The campus contributes to self- and collective efficacy. Community capacity building is achieved by providing a supportive environment for structural participation, information and services, opportunities for learning and social support for community members to take charge of some of the health matters affecting them. Community members are able to learn in their own regional context in an easily accessible venue.

Older citizens, amongst others, learn in the sessions about various health issues and self-management skills. As their capacity is built, they too can be social resources and agents for fostering health and wellbeing in the community. The significance of the contribution made by older members to society should not be underestimated: they provide a high proportion of support for members of their extended families and have the potential to influence diverse networks. Just how much they contribute, ranging from child-minding to financial assistance, is acknowledged in Institute of Family Studies findings (cited in Jones, n.d.). At the same time, exploring new knowledge can enhance what should be for them "an era of personal fulfilment" (Laslett, 1991, p. 4).

The fact that people requested sessions on the specific areas of education and training that they believed were needed was the key factor in the successful links with the community members. As Mitchell (2000) highlights, education and training benefit community members profoundly if they are spearheaded by the community. In most of these sessions participants' knowledge about health matters has been developed, expanded and challenged. The capacity of community members to identify their health needs and care is encouraged through the process of study of and reflection on the options available to them. Some of these sessions are proactive rather than reactive: health measures are taught so that they can prevent repercussions of health problems rather than simply responding to them. Participants have also learned about health-promoting activities. For example, grief following the loss of a spouse may lead to depression, which could lead to insomnia. Management strategies, solutions and alternatives are presented, either affirming what they are already doing or encouraging them to adopt new approaches, such as in this case using relaxation techniques and/or changing sleeping habits. Thus capacity is built, enabling them more effectively to manage change in their health status and to manage a variety of chronic conditions. Access to useful information and contacts is critical to making decisions that will improve quality of life.

In providing adult education that is potentially transformative, the university not only presents content but also provides opportunities for participants to share by means of discussing their beliefs and practices concerning health and illness and how they arrived at them. The learners are assisted to question the validity of those beliefs and practices and challenged to become not only rational but also "more imaginative, intuitive, and critically reflective of assumptions", gaining "meaning perspectives that are more inclusive, integrative, discriminating, and open to alternative points of view", thus moving "toward a fuller and more dependable understanding of the meaning of our mutual experience" (Mezirow, 1991, p. 224). The transformation happens when actions (such as lifestyle changes) are taken to implement the insights following contemplation and critical reflection. There were many anecdotal accounts providing evidence that this had happened: for example, one participant subsequently decided to continue taking her medications in spite of lack of symptoms; another realised that her self-medicating might be counter-productive.

The benefits of these community engagements are many. The social resources created are important. Interview evidence suggests that participants impart to others, their family and friends, for instance, what they have learned in the education sessions. The knowledge and skills gained are thus not only supportive of their personal growth but also transmitted to others and retained in the community beyond the life of the educational program. An offshoot of these initiatives is learning health skills from the experience of others, from peers who "provide information but not advice...encourage and empower but [do] not instruct" (Whyalla Quality Use of Medicines Group, 2003, p. 2). Interaction among participants during sessions showed that this sharing of information was a reality, for example, in discussions on dealing with insomnia.

A closely linked benefit is the possibility of networking with others (see also Leffler & Svedberg, 2003), an important tool of capacity building. This includes identifying formal networks of key people to contact for information, for example, health professionals with appropriate expertise who will be useful to approach with regard to particular health issues, and disseminating information through informal networks - people in the community with whom they have connections because of similar interests. Networks that have been created can serve as stimuli to and scaffold for continuing university-community engagement.

Another major achievement of the education sessions has been increasing awareness of health services available, as well as the linking with key people referred to above. This process of identifying and linking enables greater self-efficacy, as participants now have the knowledge of whom to contact with regard to particular issues or problems; for example, the incontinence nurse and a clinical psychologist were among the speakers. In addition, the Whyalla experience is a good example of the community becoming empowered to find their own solutions to their local needs and problems, by developing awareness or shared understanding of how a particular health issue may be addressed. This has been demonstrated by the readiness of various interest groups to approach the campus for further sessions. As they are assisted to seek solutions and discover alternatives, ownership of the solution and management strategy is fostered.

While the university seeks to serve the community, the flow of benefits is certainly not unidirectional. Nor are these links new for the campus, as they have been encouraged for many years ("Community links ...", 1991, p. 14). Examples relevant to the programs described here include:

For further discussion of the mutual dependence of campus and community, see Ellis, Boxall, Dollard and Sawyer (2000).


The mutual benefits gained indicate the wisdom of continuing these programs. Not only have a number of requests been made by community members for particular topics, but an ongoing program is also more readily able to provide the support needed for transformative learning than one-off ones. Some sessions envisaged for this year include a signs and symptoms of disease seminar. Members of the older group have made requests for various other topics (including repeat sessions), such as managing disability, information about diabetes and sunstroke and knowledge about pharmaceuticals. Ways need to be found to encourage men to attend sessions organised especially for them. Needs analysis must be continuous, and funding issues need to be resolved.

Maintaining an up-to-date contact list will facilitate communication of details of available health seminars and advising of future plans. Links with other organisations providing similar services need to be established and/or maintained so that co-operation is encouraged and needless duplication avoided.

The flow-on effects of the sessions will be extended and increased by: training peer educators; making database information easily accessible; establishing a newsletter; and encouraging participants to take a leadership role to promote health and education in the community. Further benefits to the campus will come from continued participation of community members in various activities involving undergraduate students; for example, there are plans to extend the current inclusion of local people willing to talk to students about their health condition as "partners of the School".


Sustainable outcomes can be achieved when local people are committed to working together as a community to find solutions by building on community strengths and assets (see also Oyanagi, 2003). The university helps create the environment in which capacity building can occur, sharing understandings of issues, co-operating with community groups and actively implementing capacity building strategies, as described in this paper.

Borrowing the words of a Community Business Partnership manifesto and applying it to the linkages we have been discussing, we could say:

[University] and community are subsets of each other and are inextricably part of each other. Mutually beneficial collaboration between [university] and community can provide more efficient and long-term solutions to community issues and build greater social cohesion. ("Partners," 2003, p. 25)
As in these business partnerships, university-community partnerships should also involve joining "resources and talents to achieve mutual goals, [to] develop creative solutions to local and regional problems and to strengthen...partnerships" ("Partners," 2003, p. 25). The regional and national importance of such relationships has been emphasised by Garlick:
Stronger regional development returns, and consequent national benefits, will only emerge if there is active and purposeful engagement of a university in the community in which it is located.... [A]ctive and purposeful engagement is dependent upon a mutual relationship being built between a regional community and a university. (Cited in Australian Universities Community Engagements Alliance, 2003, p. 4)
The University of South Australia is in the business of empowering people. Its positional statement is "Educating professionals, creating and applying knowledge, serving the community". It is to be hoped that these aims will be accomplished in ways that empower and not ways that create dependence. Relationships formed along the way, if valued and nurtured, have the potential to be beneficial to all involved - university, individual members of the campus and of the wider community in which it is located and of other communities to which it relates, and groups within all such communities.


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Author details: Joy Penman has been a Lecturer in the Discipline of Nursing and Rural Health at the Whyalla Campus of the University of South Australia for the past 10 years. She is currently pursuing doctoral studies in nursing.

Bronwyn Ellis is an Adjunct of the Whyalla Campus of the University of South Australia, and was formerly involved for 13 years in providing language and academic skills support. She is also a casual teacher in Whyalla schools.

Please cite as: Penman, J. and 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

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