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How to do community research with a university partner

June 2016

Some Big Local partnerships have found that working with universities means opportunities to learn research techniques, and to gather more evidence and get more credibility that can help them achieve the change they want to see. For an example, see this blog about Whitley Big Local working with University of Reading to help tackle transport issues.

This may sound like a big step but universities are keen to work with communities. It gives them the chance to develop their research, to show they are engaged in the local community, and to give their students an interesting learning opportunity. For example, the picture below describes how University of Sheffield planning department have been working with Westfield Big Local.

How to start a relationship with academia

Look at what is already happening in universities near you, in terms of outreach, volunteering, or community engagement. You can access some of this information through the university’s website. Your Big Local rep might also have ideas on how to make contact.

It will take time to understand the organisational structures and ‘ways in’. Universities have many different departments.  You may be able to work with:

  • An individual academic researcher or research director.
  • People with a responsibility to engage with the local community: Find out if there is a university ‘point of contact’ for community work (sometimes these might be called a ‘Science Shop’ or ‘Participation Hub’).
  • The student union and community-orientated societies: See if the student union has a community officer who can help.

Each type of contact person is different and they won’t necessarily know each other. Each will have their own reasons for wanting to work with you. An academic researcher might be interested in writing a paper or in training for students, while someone whose job it is to develop community contacts may be looking for new opportunities or may be responding to a funder’s requirements. They may also wish to talk with communities on aspects of student behaviour.

It is worth exploring links with all three categories as they may not talk to each other.  Staff and researchers also come and go, so keep contacts up-to-date. For example, student unions change their officers every year.

Finding a key contact person is important, as is being clear on what s/he is looking to do. Reputation building and trust takes time and can’t be hurried.

Potential challenges and things to consider

  1. You need to maintain ownership by the community.
  2. There has to be a willingness on both sides – academia and Big Local areas - to work in partnership.
  3. Be clear about what you (and the university) want to achieve at the start. Make sure there are good research plans with clear objectives and specific outcomes that everyone is happy with.
  4. You will need to get the right students into the right community projects – ideally they should be incentivised / motivated to help design projects. You may want to meet people before you agree to working with them.
  5. There must be time for supportive learning and reflection about what has been done: plan for this.
  6. Different stakeholders such as academics have other tasks and priorities and may work at a different pace. Think about if you are being realistic about expectations of timing.
  7. You might want to consider how to develop processes and policies (e.g. on health and safety, safeguarding) as you start building relationships with universities and other stakeholders. Without these it may be difficult for other stakeholders to engage with Big Local groups.

Building the relationship

Once you’ve found the way in there are other issues to consider to build a good relationship:

  • Good communication and feedback is essential: building a link with a university will take time and ongoing effort from both sides.
  • University staff may have access to professional networks where community involvement issues can be raised and information shared.
  • Keep your contacts informed about what you’re doing in Big Local (mailings, social media etc,) even at times when you are not working actively together.
  • Consider when planning local events / activities how you might engage with local students.

Useful resources


About this how-to guide

This how-to guide is based on ‘Doing it ourselves’, a report from the ‘Making Change Happen’ Big Local learning and networking event on community research run on 12 April 2016 at the University of Reading with their kind support and in cooperation with Whitley Big Local. The event was organised and facilitated by Community Environment Associates (CEA).

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