Leading universities will make community engagement core business 


Delegates of the 4th annual Australian Universities Community Engagement Alliance (AUCEA) Conference, held this week at Charles Darwin University (CDU) in Alice Springs, were told leading universities in the future, will be those that make community engagement core business. 

Rob Wallace, outgoing President of AUCEA, said the findings, from the Australian Universities Quality Agency’s (AUQA) community engagement review, previewed at the conference, included more commendations than recommendations which was encouraging, but the key was taking community engagement to the next level. 

“The report showed many universities are taking up the call for scholarly community engagement,’ Mr Wallace said.

“The key now is to embed community engagement into the business of the university,” he said. “As Dr Sherril Gelmon told delegates, now is the time for universities to take community engagement to the next level and establish community engagement as an academic enterprise,” he said.

“It is safe to say, as universities begin to identify community engagement as a core competency, AQUA commendations will be harder to achieve and those universities that have been able to achieve community engagement as an academic enterprise, will have a clear advantage,” he said. 

Keynote speaker Dr Mark Rose, who amongst other things is a member of the Federal Government’s Indigenous Higher Education Advisory Council, said the conference was timely, given the national emergency.

“The irony is, my plane from Darwin was full of bureaucrats responding to the situation perhaps their time would have been better used attending this conference as part of their mid and long-term strategy,” he said. “Community engagement by universities is definitely a fundamental part of the solution.

“Universities have a responsibility across all areas of their business to engage with Indigenous communities and their culture and shouldn’t leave this just up to specific units,’ Dr Rose said.

CDU Vice-Chancellor Professor Helen Garnett, who presented on the conference panel discussing institutional responsiveness to the drivers of community engagement, said CDU was uniquely placed and committed to engaging with community throughout the Territory.

“CDU has identified community engagement and Indigenous knowledge as two if its key areas of strategic focus,” she said. “Through this, all areas of the University are accountable for community engagement, of which Indigenous knowledge and understanding is a fundamental and inextricable element.”

Matt Campbell, from the School of Australian Indigenous Knowledge Systems at CDU, told conference delegates, community engagement strategies which enabled universities to meet the needs of Indigenous people within their regions required specific attention as a subset of community engagement.

“University community engagement on the ground in Indigenous communities can lead to benefits being delivered to the university, the Indigenous community and to the wider NT community,” he said. “It’s fundamental though, that this process be underpinned by a sound understanding of Indigenous governance, respect and a commitment to ongoing negotiation with regards to the aims, purpose and practice of the work undertaken.”
Conference convener and CDU Community Engagement Coordinator, Linda Cuttriss, said the conference achieved its goal of stimulating lively discussion and debate, while also engaging with the local Alice Springs community.

“Over 130 delegates attended the conference and the discussion and debate was very robust, particularly in discussing the role universities can play in engaging with Indigenous communities, in response to the national emergency,” she said.

“The conference itself engaged the local Alice Springs community on a number of levels,’ Ms Cuttriss said. “The conference catering was supplied by Kungas Can Cook, a catering company owned and operated by a group of local Indigenous people,” she said, ‘local artists from Irrkerlantye Arts also displayed their art throughout the conference and I understand sold quite a number of paintings.”

As part of the official post conference tour delegates visited Desert Knowledge CRC, the Conference sponsor, as well as the Centre for Appropriate Technology and the Centre for Remote Health.

Ms Cuttriss said the conference also engaged with the wider Alice Springs community. “Drum Atweme a group of young local Aboriginal drummers entertained delegates at the Welcome Reception and Ooraminna Homestead provided a taste of authentic Outback hospitality at the conference dinner and a number of delegates were staying in the Alice Springs area to holiday after the conference,” she said.

In closing the conference Mr Wallace said: “It is encouraging to see the level of networking and collaboration between delegates, especially when you take into consideration the youth of the organisations,” he said. “With this only the fourth conference of AUCEA, I look forward to what future years of AUCEA networking and collaboration will bring in university-community engagement.”