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Laura McAllister is Professor of Governance at the University of Liverpool’s School of Management. She is currently Chair of Sport Wales and a former Wales football international and national team captain with 24 caps. Laura is also a Board Member of UK Sport, Stonewall UK, the Welsh Football Trust, the British Council Wales and the Institute of Welsh Affairs.
I confess I am always slightly perplexed by debates on academic engagement. Well, perhaps I should say that I am surprised there is a debate at all. Now, I’m not just talking about the narrow confines of scholarly impact as defined and measured by REF, but rather the opportunities for us academics to do all kinds of things outside our departments and institutions, that is with the people, communities and organisations ‘out there’. I struggle to imagine an academic who would not wish to connect his or her research and teaching with this external universe and seek some wider benefits or impact from it? Of course, concepts of academic ‘engagement’ and ‘impact’ have been flung around like a rag doll until many scholars must be terrified of even dipping a toe in the engagement water. All I would say is that, for me, it has rapidly become the most meaningful and challenging parts of my professional life as an academic.
Any remaining notion of universities as self-contained, distanced and rarefied arenas operating with their own codes, regulations and language is clearly nonsense. We, as academics who research things and teach students, should embrace engagement in any and every form that suits our disciplines, scholarly fields and personal interests. Of course, the corollary of that is that universities, and the systems through which staff are developed and promoted, need to better recognise the multifarious forms that this engagement and impact will take.
Now, I’m not naí¯ve enough to suggest that each and every academic will wish to go the whole hog and leave the relative comfort and safety of our academic terrain to venture out and ‘do something’ slightly different or even seemingly at a tangent with their research interests. It may also be true that some disciplines, and certainly some personalities, better lend themselves to external engagement. There is also the small matter of career development and financial recompense. Choices will invariably be made between those who wish to earn through traditional consultancy and knowledge exchange, and others for whom public interest and civic contributions (overwhelmingly unpaid!) are just as important.
It matters not. For me, academic engagement is the fine wine that enhances the academic dinner table – the glass of ice cold Sancerre that can refresh and revitalise any jaded academic palate. I genuinely feel that my own external roles, particularly on boards- government, public and charitable- have provided me with better practical experience and intellectual insight than virtually anything else I have undertaken in my career.
The notion of ‘legacy’ from last year’s hugely successful Olympic and Paralympic Games is still exercising all of us involved in sport. The strap line was to ‘inspire a generation’, with children’s participation in sport as a critical debate. School classrooms, playgrounds and sports fields have quickly become the critical terrain on which we have focused our thinking.
I was appointed to the Welsh Government’s task and finish group, commissioned jointly by the Ministers for Education and for Sport, and chaired by Baroness Tanni Grey-Thompson. In our short, sharp review, we are exploring how we can drive physical literacy through school sport. As part of this, I have shared thinking space (plus a few rows and laughs) with primary and secondary head teachers, FE principals, governing body chairs, directors of education, and academic experts on physical competence and PE. Using resources for improving physical development and creative movement skills for 3-7 year olds and linking into the pioneering ‘Foundation Phase’ in Welsh education, we have committed to improving learning through play. Our Sport Wales scheme, Dragon Multi-Skills and Sport is modelled on successes in New Zealand which embed basic skills like agility, balance and co-ordination for all children, sporty and less so.
So that’s me, a political scientist by background and a public management researcher by profession, obsessed with the challenge of improving physical literacy for under 7s. So much so that as I endeavour to finesse a journal article on coalition governments, my mind drifts back to how we can ensure all four-year-olds have the core skills to enjoy a lifetime of physical activity and sport. Contradictory or mutually exclusive? Never. Challenging and intellectually inspiring? Absolutely!
Follow Laura on Twitter: @lauramcallister
While I have some concerns about Laura’s optimum temperature of Sancerre, the point she makes about engagement with the ‘community’, be it Liverpool City Region, Wales, the EU or a global organisation is a good one. Many of these roles are indeed unpaid, often at variance with the short term outputs demanded by HoDs or HoFs, while commensurate with the 5 Strategic objectives of the Institution. They are also immensely satisfying as they can achieve change on a scale not always feasible with conventional academic outputs. We take pride in the citations of our favourite papers, but also from the 4 or 40 year olds we inspire to change their behaviour towards either a better professional practice which cascades down to an increasingly informed public or a healthier lifestyle based on a personal or parental vision of wellbeing. The common factor is of course communication of an evidence based message at a time and place when the public and their leaders with the purse strings are in a receptive phase. The Olympic legacy will be debated as we head into a 5 year programme of local and national public sector cuts in this City Region, while the remaining years of the decade of health and wellbeing will be closely scrutinised for their measurable effect on the Zeitgeist of this fastest growing of northern cities. A philosophy of mens sana based on a corporeal vision attributed initially to the Spartans and reinvented during the last recession will require leadership and luck, but the timing could never be better.
Institute of Translational Medicine
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