The UCT Knowledge Co-op: Facilitating Engaged Student Research

17 Sep 2018 - 13:45


A recent seminar in the Emerging Researcher Programme focused on community-engaged academic work. Engaged scholarship, adopted as UCT policy in 2012, refers to the utilisation of an academic’s scholarly and/or professional expertise for an intentional public purpose or benefit, which demonstrates engagement with external, non-academic constituencies. Such socially responsive work – whether research or teaching – has its challenges, along with great rewards; some are specific to the Cape Town context, others occur wherever engagement happens. The seminar considered some of these challenges and presented the UCT Knowledge Co-op as a resource to help student researchers and their supervisors deal with (at least some of) them. 

What is the UCT Knowledge Co-op?

The 'brokering model' that the Co-op uses is based on the ‘science shop’ model – an idea born in the European student uprising of the 1960s and 1970s. It offers one way among many others for a university to be responsive to civil society; in this case by allowing community groups to influence its research agenda. 

The principle is to make available to the community what students have to do for their degrees. This involves:

  • Sourcing research needs from ‘community partners’, be they non-profit or non-government organisations, local government or grassroot groupings. 
  • Advertising these needs to relevant academic departments across UCT.
  • Introducing the project partners (community partner, student and the academic supervisor) to one another and facilitate a discussion to ensure the project will fulfil academic requirements as well as answer the needs of the community partner.
  • Supporting the project throughout (more on this below).

Projects mostly take the form of post-graduate dissertation research, which in some cases has grown into a supervisor’s research theme. Occasionally projects develop around service learning or compulsory community service, or practical work for course credits.

Examples of current Knowledge Co-op projects

While topics can address any concern and be taken up by students from across campus, many of them address poverty and the reality of communities where most people are poor. Such projects currently underway are: 

  • Understand the ultimate reasons for Philippi children not completing school – is it about lacking role models, the need to help at home or fear for gang violence?  Masters in Development Studies
  • Research the impact that food gardening has on the mental well-being of people and the contribution is makes towards social cohesion. A case study in Rocklands, Mitchells Plain. Masters in Sociology
  • Develop a framework to assess the impact of a programme using volunteering-with-soft-skill-training to prepare young people from disadvantaged background for finding and keeping a job. Masters in Economics (developmental)
  • Study the impact of providing sanitary pads to teenage girls on their schooling attendance and outcomes in Ocean View and Capricorn. Honours in Anthropology
  • Assess the adherence of elderly persons on state pensions to medications and use of assistive devices. MPhil Health Innovation & Design
  • Assess the value of attending a Montessori pre-school, with grade R based on the CAPS curriculum, for disadvantaged children in the Philippi agricultural area. Identify possible factors for any benefits. MPhil Monitoring & Evaluation

Respectful partnerships

Beyond its ‘matchmaking’ function, the Co-op accompanies projects until completion in its commitment to fostering long-term, respectful partnerships. This implies that the projects are collaborative, involve community partners in the planning and process, are considerate of the context at all times and maintain ongoing communication. The Co-op insists on the value of multiple knowledges which result in mutual learning, and on ensuring mutual benefit, i.e. a community product alongside the academic one. 

And we put some effort into managing expectations: Students are not (yet) experts; the scope and scale of their research projects are limited; and academic timeframes are much longer and more rigid than community partners’ expectations.

There are challenges for academics wanting to work in this way. It does take time and effort, and unfortunately there are very few resources available at UCT for this additional effort. Yet the Co-op is such a resource. It offers its existing long-term partnerships that students and their supervisors can simply step into. It supports the partnerships through a facilitated ‘set-up’ process. It drafts and processes a memorandum of understanding to hold/manage expectations of all partners. 

By promoting this model, the Co-op wants to challenge a common mode of community-based, yet extractive research that regards the community merely as a site for data. In that regard the Co-op has developed good practice guides both for academics and for students, offers workshops for both groups as well as some preparation for students venturing for the first time into unfamiliar contexts, and often also into the role of independent researcher. 

Find out more