Are universities inhibiting the participatory research process?

Posted in: Leading Public Engagement

As public engagement practitioners we're not often provided with the time and space to be able to reflect on our practices and processes outside of the context of a deliverable project. That’s why ParticipatoryResearch@Bath feels like a huge privilege for the team.

It’s provided us with critical distance to be able to analyse our work and time to connect with others across the sector who are doing the same.  By doing this we're getting a much deeper insight into the landscape of participatory research, and a new baseline for us to think practically about what needs to happen next within our own community.

As part of this exploration, a few months ago we joined the Young Foundation (YF) for their Hive Conference. This two-day conference focussed on the experiences of ‘peer researchers’ – groups of people with lived experience that work with academic researchers to shape studies and provide gaps in knowledge or give a whole picture account.

The YF are an incredible resource for the sector, offering training, case studies and support for people at all stages in their journey with participatory research. They’re running a training session for us on Tuesday July 5th, 9.30am-1pm to introduce our research community to peer-research methods. You can sign up here.

An evolving research process

The programme was packed with discussions ranging from power dynamics, funding structures and evaluation; to hearing first-hand experiences from peer-researchers showcasing their involvement in research around issues such as homelessness, health inequalities, racism, and mental health conditions. If you’re interested in reading more on the approaches of peer-research and how it’s revolutionising participation in research the Foundation’s CEO Helen Goulden gives a fantastic overview in her blog post here.

As often is the case, I left the conference with more questions than answers. A lot of questions centring around exchange of, and respect for knowledge outside academia. Some about project outcomes and participant recognition. Then finally, what the true impacts (both socially and emotionally) of these projects are on society, communities, and individuals.

Creating meaningful participation

The main reflection though, which cut across every single conversation on the day, was that these projects are incredibly dynamic. Huge amounts of flexibility in terms of budgets, venue, access, and time are required to keep them on track. Something universities are historically do not have.  In most cases, universities were acting as an inhibitor, rather than an enabler, to this approach to research.

One discussion in particular where this sentiment was felt was a round table with members from Centric, Social Life and Impact on Urban Life. It highlighted that even though we can strive to create inclusive practices on an individual level, the legacy of archaic academic structures is so engrained in our processes that it’s difficult to progress without impact to the participants and relationships we're building.

Many of the projects had reflections that payment structures are slow, inconvenient for participants receiving universal credit or restrictive in terms of where money can be allocated. Peer-researchers felt that by being associated with a university they had to act and conduct themselves in a certain way. Although the affiliation brought pride and kudos, it also meant peer-researchers became an advocate for the University or organisation, which sometimes made them a target of frustration within their communities.

It was really apparent that, although Universities were integral to these projects as a source of funding and providing stable infrastructure, we'd not yet achieved authentic participation in research where everyone felt wholly satisfied. The thing preventing this, was 'the University'.

Starting afresh?

I know this isn’t exactly new information for anyone who’s been conducting this type of work for the last decade. This is definitely sentiment I’ve felt as a practitioner over the years, and I’m sure it rings true with many of you reading this. I also know this is something we're collectively addressing as a sector. It's exciting and refreshing to see initiatives like the Ideas Fund driving forward some of this thinking. Likewise seeing participatory research as central to UKRI's new strategy brings hope.

However, I could sense that there was a building realisation within this conversation and across the sector that if we are going to be adopting human centred research, our institutions need to keep up the dynamic human nature of these projects. If we are trying to revolutionise the way we do research, why aren’t we also trying to revolutionise the way research is supported and conducted by its host organisation?

Is it time for us to create an entirely new way of doing community-based research? One that isn't retrofitted to processes created in completely different socio-political climates. We need something that is affiliated and supported by the structure of the university, but detached enough that we don’t get bogged down in bureaucracy. Is there a practical and easy way for us to set up independent bodies, or organisations that act as conduits or conveners for this work?

Again, I'm aware this shift in organisational structure has been something of focus for many universities recently. However, until now, it's appeared quite anecdotal. What's great about this project is that we're beginning to further expose the need for something like this at the University of Bath. ParticipatoryResearch@Bath is providing a deeper level of context on a local level, and providing much needed nuance to what this might look like for us.

As the project progresses, I’m going to be using these as organising thoughts and would be really interested to hear other’s reflections and thoughts about this. What would this new structure look like to you? If you were to build a centre, space or organisation run by a University with the sole purpose of serving and responding to the needs of the community it was based within, what would that look like?

If this is something you’re also mulling over, or feel strongly about, please do not hesitate to get in touch with me on

Posted in: Leading Public Engagement


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