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23 August 2019
The University in Society: Engaging and Enabling Print
Thursday, 10 May 2012 15:45

by Liam Roberts


The famous adage asks us: If a tree falls in a forest and no one is there to hear it, does it make a sound? Perhaps we can adapt that question to fit a Higher Education context: If good research is generated and no one is there to manage it, does it have a development impact? Granted, the second question isn’t as catchy. But it is the one with which we concern ourselves, and which forms the basis of much of our work in the DRUSSA programme.


Today, it might be easy for us to take for granted that universities play a central role in helping societies and economies to thrive. This view, though, has not always been universally acknowledged—particularly in a development context.

Up until the last decade or so, many of the world’s largest donors too often viewed Higher Education as something of a “luxury item”—perceived as less worthy of international support when compared with development challenges that presented themselves with greater urgency, such as rampant poverty, gender inequality, food insecurity, environmental degradation, disease and the HIV and AIDS pandemic.

Thankfully, that kind of compartmentalised thinking has changed. It is now widely understood that the gravest development challenges can be best resolved when countries have the capacity to generate knowledge with development potential, and when they can impart the necessary expertise to empower skilled professionals at home. Universities are indispensable in creating new generations of teachers, doctors, business leaders, nurses and engineers. They are central to developing sustainable approaches to agriculture, to enterprise, to governance and to social well-being.

This speaks to the idea of a university as a kind of twin development engine, each engine somewhat distinct although both essential. Firstly, universities serve as “engines of graduates”, who then go on to participate in society as leaders and innovators. Secondly, and importantly, universities are also engines of research itself—the raw knowledge that can help inform key decisions regarding an array of development-related fields of work.

It is the second of these channels that concerns us directly in the DRUSSA programme. While perhaps it seems clear that graduates graduate—that is, they go on from their degree programmes to participate in wider society—it is less clear how research participates in wider society. Research requires agents of facilitation and dissemination, and needs to be heard and understood in order to be useful. Research requires an interest.

As such, the role of the university is not simply to generate knowledge, nor to simply broadcast it without the means to learn whether it has been heard; it is instead to facilitate research uptake through engagement.

This can happen through establishing and maintaining links to industry and business, helping research with commercial potential to be taken up and utilised—ultimately leading to economic growth and innovation and helping to establish a positive investment climate.


It can also happen when universities engage with governments and policymakers to coordinate research objectives with national development needs—leading to a joined-up approach to addressing the Millennium Development Goals and specific regional development challenges.

It happens when universities reach out to rural and remote communities directly, not only to communicate new advances and new ideas in fields ranging from public health to agriculture, environmental sustainability and new models of enterprise, but also to learn from communities directly what the pressing development issues are, and how university research might be able to help address these. This means not unilateral knowledge transfer, but instead, knowledge exchange—the university acting as a key partner in knowledge generation, and one that is enriched through engaging outside the campus boundaries.

When we ask ourselves “what is research uptake,” the answer begins to emerge from these very scenarios. It is a cooperative, informed, non-didactic approach to the management of research, directly involving a host of external stakeholders who have an interest in research impact. In lower- and middle-income countries, the resolution of key development challenges is in everyone’s interest, meaning universities will be looking to engage at multiple levels—business, government and civil society all share an interest in research with development impact.

There are no obvious, universal models for how universities ought to do this, but there are opportunities to establish a strong community of learning between universities with an interest in research uptake. This is the key role of DRUSSA—to facilitate that community, to encourage partner universities to share their experiences in research uptake management, and to generate knowledge resources that can be shared and discussed.

Universities are central partners in the production and dissemination of knowledge, but they are not only that. They are also hubs at the centre of a broad-based web between policy and practice, and between public and private spheres. Approaching research from that perspective is key for it to have its full potential impact.


Liam Roberts is a programme officer at the ACU and thus involved in strengthening institutional capacity at DRUSSA participant universities.