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Ström, J 2011, 'Enabling engagement: a study of university-community engagement at a non-metropolitan Australian university', PhD thesis, Southern Cross University, Lismore, NSW.

Copyright J Ström 2011


This thesis is an in-depth study of University-Community Engagement (UCE) that was undertaken at a non-metropolitan university located in regional Australia. The study was embarked upon at the request of Professor Peter Baverstock, then Pro-Vice Chancellor (Research) at Southern Cross University (SCU), in northern New South Wales, Australia. This UCE investigation at SCU took place between January 2006 and July 2009. The importance of effective UCE to support the common good through the facilitation of social, human, and economic capital growth is the foundation for this research.

The following three research questions form the basis of the enquiry:

1. How do internal and external stakeholders associated with Southern Cross University understand and/or perceive University- Community Engagement?

2. How is engagement being addressed at Southern Cross University?

3. How can a culture-of-engagement be embedded at Southern Cross University?

As the review of engagement related literature revealed a strong praxis orientation, other theoretical perspectives were also reviewed to provide a stronger theoretical base to underpin the study, and to provide greater depth when addressing the research questions. A range of theories, including Systems Thinking and Chaos/Complexity Theory were explored. Chaos/Complexity Theory was selected because it provided a systematic way of looking at a complex, dynamic, non-linear and messy UCE reality that encompasses human interaction, multiple disciplines and multiple communities.

The study is based on three areas of Action Research (AR) activity and multiple other data sources informed the study: extensive literature reviews, 38 semistructured interviews with internal and external co-participants, internal and external documents, and a reflective journal. The iterative AR cycles of plan –act – observe – reflect – provided many opportunities to build knowledge and understanding for myself, and my co-participants during the study.

Multiple methods of analysis were employed in order to grow UCE knowledge and understanding, they were: Summary Documents, the Williams Data Analysis Tool and Chaordic Systems Thinking (CST). A chaordic approach is a delicate and complex balance between chaos and order that had its genesis in Chaos/Complexity Theory. This approach combines the dynamic creativity of chaos and the predictability of order and it suits the multi-faceted UCE environment. While proponents of CST recognise that conventional management approaches can deal with more simple problems, they argue that these approaches tend to be static and inflexible. In contrast, a CST perspective acknowledges complexity and is based upon natural systems that flow and change, and adapt and evolve, quite naturally. CST encourages inclusive both/and thinking rather than either/or approaches. It is open, dynamic, evolving, and participatory and these features have simpatico with UCE.

The findings of this study have revealed a means of embedding a culture of engagement at SCU. The engagement-enabling method that was created could also advance UCE in higher education, and assist in building engagement activity in other sectors. The method encourages a focus on building community assets by embracing a holistic approach to UCE, with a particular focus on Engaged Scholarship (ES). This thesis establishes that ES is realised through Engaged Teaching and Learning, Engaged Research and Discovery and Engaged Community Service. The purpose of undertaking an ES approach to UCE is to develop a more inclusive scholarly approach to higher education that supports the common good.