A UCT research programme co-creates knowledge with adjacent communities 

Published On: 6 July 2023|

The relationship between the university and community engagement takes on a new nuance with the University of Cape Town’s (UCT) Knowledge Co-op.

Inspired by the science shops that started in Dutch universities in the 1970s before spreading worldwide, the co-op does research that starts within the community – thus democratising science through what has been referred to as a bottom-up approach.

Ms Roshan Sonday (right), UCT’s Knowledge Co-op’s programme manager, explained its operating principles at the 5th annual Executive Leadership Workshop (ELW) of the Entrepreneurship Development in Higher Education (EDHE) programme that was held in Cape Town on 21 and 22 June.

“The community-based organisations are actually part of the proposal development,‘’ said Sonday. “So, from the onset, we are co-creating; the university is not setting the agenda. That is very important because a lot of times community organisations are marginalised and just used for the data they have, and access to informants. But we protect that relationship from the start.”

Speaking on Putting knowledge and research to work beyond the university, Ms Sonday narrated to the executive leadership of 24 universities, how the co-op operates.

It enables, supports, and strengthens knowledge exchange between the university and community. External partners can access the skills, resources and professional expertise of the university, which is, in turn “tapping into the deep-rooted and indigenous community knowledge – mostly tacit knowledge — that you do not find in textbooks,” said Sonday. “This enables UCT academics and students to do engaged research.”

She described it as a win-win situation. The students do research they would be doing in any case, and at the same time the community benefits from the collaboration. The programme stems from UCT’s “serious commitment to support social responsiveness research in a more tangible way”.

Started in August 2010, the programme’s results speak volumes:

  • Organisations have submitted 775 topics for projects but not all are taken up by students;
  • Up to 153 topics are presently available for projects, a number that grows as more ideas are developed following a series of meetings with new community partners;
  • The topics are spread across faculties but are mostly focused on the social sciences;
  • The co-op works with 30 to 49 topics per year and is presently busy with 34 projects, all at various stages;
  • Co-op projects have generated 103 dissertations, mostly at master’s level; and
  • Ninety-five academics have been involved in the programme and 339 students in its community service.

The communication cycle

Community partners inform the co-op of the mission they’re pursuing and the co-op formulates topics with them, which become available for students to take up for research, some at honours but mostly master’s level.

The first PhD candidate showed interested in 2022 and they have now signed a Memorandum of Agreement (MoA) with the community partner for research to begin. Another PhD candidate had an exploratory meeting, but the brief was not totally aligned to what the community partner was seeking to achieve. They took time to reflect before resubmission of the proposal.

Because the process starts with a community, community partners are typically aware of what the co-op does.  Primarily information is shared through the co-op’s website and by word-of-mouth. Part of Sonday’s mandate, as the programme manager, is to bring in new partners, ‘’and that is not difficult because a lot of our existing partners would recommend others”.

Internally, the co-op sends out a research announcement email to all the university’s academics, and regularly updates its website as topics come in. It also updates the social responsiveness ambassadors within faculties and the deputy deans of research to filter the information to the relevant departments. During orientation at the start of the academic year, the co-op also informs students about the programme. ’’And that’s a really great way to find a match for the topics,” she said.

A step-by-step engagement model

The Knowledge Co-op uses an engagement model that kickstarts once they find a suitable student for a topic.  The process involves:

  • Initial exploration meetings where the student and community partner meet to see if their needs align;
  • a setup meeting with the student, supervisor, community partner and the Knowledge Co-op staff;
  • the Research Contracts Office draws up an MoA, which includes the partner’s “project” request. These can range from a policy brief to a toy-making manual or an early childhood development organisation;
  • the student presents the research to the community partner for feedback. One partner was not happy with the literature review in the thesis and requested additional material, which meant an additional two months’ work for the student. “These are all just lessons and the lesson is always just to have the two parties on the same page’’; and
  • publication and the dissemination of the research. The partner gets a copy of the dissertation and a summary report, and both are uploaded onto the co-op’s website for people to access freely.

Measuring impact

The programme is about social responsiveness, so, a lot of the work does not get published, said Sonday. Yet the co-op’s assessment of its work does include its academic impact by way of publications.

The co-op also measures the impact for its community partners. Their feedback includes raising awareness of their issues and challenges, helping them see their programmes with fresh eyes, improving what they do, and helping them access funding.  This feedback has given them insight into how their work has impacted on their beneficiaries.

‘’They also value theforging of long-term relationships with the university,” said Sonday, with some organisations even employing students after their research has been completed.

The next step

The co-op would like to develop their students’ science writing expertise. They need to translate the academic discourse of their dissertation into a project summary report, said Sonday, and they’re not always able to do that. For now, the co-op does quality assurance of the report to make sure it is simplified ‘’because that documentation is also going to the network of the community partner and is often included in their funding applications.”

Some projects

Sonday projected in pictures, the variety of work the Knowledge Co-op undertakes. These included:

  • an honours students giving IT training to a community partner’s staff;
  • the Underdog Project which works with vulnerable children and dogs in Cape Town. Both receive love and a UCT study identified the project benefits and shortfalls, which the partner could thereafter address; and
  • the Shark Spotters project, a Cape Town’s primary shark safety project based at look-out points on beaches. It also provides skills development to its employees. A master’s student is researching the project’s economic and social impact and ultimate benefit to the employees’ communities.


Professor Vanessa Steenkamp, Deputy Dean: Teaching and Learning at the Faculty of Health Sciences at the University of Pretoria, commented that the programme is only at postgraduate level. “One would really like to see this at undergraduate level. The outputs are focused on the academic. I would like to see its effect on community upliftment.  Community members must learn with the students and the students must learn from the community. How are you measuring that? What difference is it making to the community members themselves?’’

Sonday’s response: “We do the impact assessment but we’re not engaging with the beneficiaries, because we feel it’s the onus of the community organisation. But this whole process is about learning. It’s about learning from our mistakes. So, I thank you for your very well valuable comments which I will reflect on.”

Gillian Anstey is a contract writer with Universities South Africa.