Sport is a key part of UL’s UNESCO Knowledge for Change Hub – Gary Ryan

You will often hear the term engaged scholarship used with regards to Universities. You would typically see the importance of engaged and translational research included in most Universities strategic plans and be seen by almost all third level institutions as part of their key contribution to society in general. UL has always been rightly recognised for its deep connection to the region, to industry and to the community it serves. In Sport, Physical Education and Physical Activity that contribution isn’t just to the city but to our country as a whole.

As any good athlete will tell you there is no such thing as standing still, you must continually look for improvement and the University of Limerick in terms of the UL Engage programme which is the overarching approach to community engagement certainly has no concept of standing still.

Under the leadership of the Vice President for Academic Affairs Professor Kerstin Mey, and Professor Maura Adshead the University of Limerick applied to the HEA Innovation call and was granted €1.4 million to support the UL Meitheal proposal.

Key to that proposal was that UL would become a UNESCO Knowledge for Change (K4C) Hub for Community based research. To become a hub, the University is required to have a specific hub design and a number of trained mentors to deliver the hub. The mentor training programme is delivered by the University of Victoria (led by Dr Budd Hall) in Canada and PRIA in India (led by Dr Rajesh Tandon) The University of Limerick Hub has four key themes around, Health, Science, the Irish Language and Sport.

In the case of sport, in our applications to the HEA and to K4C we made the case that sport is a great driver and facilitator of social change, cohesion and opportunity as well as health and well being. We see exercise as medicine, as a key opportunity for the community and the University to partner to improve the lives of residents in our partner communities. We see opportunities for the University to help build sustainable and strong sporting organisations through the expertise we have at our disposal and as well as using the medium of sport to promote social change, to encourage young people to stay in education for longer and to connect the sporting heritage of this city to the shared futures we have for the city and the region.

There are multiple opportunities to be pursued, but the key element of a K4C hub is that we co-create with the community. Universities can sometimes create community engagement where it is more in the interest of the university rather than the community. Where the Community is mined for data and information rather than the co-creation of projects to meet needs and solve problems. In K4C hubs the idea is that the community members are also members of the research team, their local knowledge is as valuable as the knowledge gleaned from peer reviewed journals and that real sustainable impact comes as a result of this process of co-creation and real partnership.

While we are in the development of our new hub and our partnerships with the community, the K4C training involved a face to face element which was held recently in Arusha in Northern Tanzania. I, along with my colleagues, Eileen Hoffler (Community Engagement Facilitator UL) and Dr Deirdre Ní Loingsigh, Stiúrthóir, Aonad na Gaeilge) K4C hubs from Tanzania, Uganda, Malaysia and Indonesia were part of this particular cohort. It was a fascinating two-week programme, sharing very diverse experiences but also understanding the great commonalities we share with Universities from around the world working in their local communities. The shared learnings provide us with a great insight into how we can be more effective and ingrained in the lives of Limerick people to support their future, in helping them identify their own needs and working with them to provide some solutions.

The highlights were really around the wonderful people on the course who worked in very different areas to myself but while we came from very different contexts there was a huge amount to learn from them, particularly around how to be an active researcher/ scholar/ institution in your local community. It was certainly one of those experiences that stretches you and takes you out of your comfort zone, which is great for anyone anytime. The highlight of which, for me, was a visit to a Masai womens project  and village, close to the Kenyan border.

The challenge to us now is to find an effective and productive way of working with our community partners to find meaningful and sustained ways of bringing the University to life to them.  With the purchase of the Dunnes Stores site in the city centre we have a physical catalyst to this movement. I am certain in a city which identifies so closely with its sporting heritage that key to any long term partnership between UL and the city of Limerick will be in Sport and Physical Activity and we look forward to working with the various stakeholders to make this a best practise model worldwide in this area. We are the first of the K4C hubs to have sport as a key theme and this presents us with an exciting opportunity. But then again, Sport, Physical Activity, the University of Limerick, the city of Limerick, kind of makes perfect sense doesn’t it?

Feature Photo: members of the cohort at the UNESCO K4C training workshops in Arusha Tanzania

Gary Ryan is the project manager for UL Beo and for the Sport and Human Performance Research Centre at the University of Limerick. Contact Gary at

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