Nicola Branson and Vimal Ranchhod, principle investigators on SALDRU’s Siyaphambili Project, an initiative that aims to grow the base of empirical research on post-schooling access and success and effectively communicate these findings to policy makers, have recently returned from a learning tour to the United States (US) funded by the Kresge Foundation.
The aim of the tour was to connect with researchers and advocacy groups trying to effect policy change in the higher education sphere in the US.
During their three-day visit, Branson and Ranchhod had meetings with approximately 10 organisations, including academic and private sector research groups, advocates for post-secondary education reform and a newspaper that focuses exclusively on the post-secondary sector.
The aims of the tour were, firstly, to understand the key factors that make for successful academic – policymaker relationships, and secondly, to learn more about how to effectively communicate research results beyond the academic sphere.
SALDRU’s researchers report that the tour was extremely thought provoking. They found a significant difference in the number of organisations engaged in higher education research and policy advocacy in the US. “There are definitely many more organisations working on this issue in the US,” Ranchhod said.
The numbers of organisations and people working on higher education in the U.S. facilitates greater specialisation as well as different approaches to work. “Their environment is very different…the whole process of production of research and communication is much more layered than South Africa. There were just so many different types of organisations engaged in communicating higher education research,” Branson argued.
Nonetheless, it was the time-honoured wisdom of relationship building that was the key take away for the SALDRU researchers who met people that frequently highlighted its significance, especially for policy advocacy.
The most important learning that surfaced with respect to communication was the significance of audience differentiation, to focus on a single message and customising this message for different audiences.
“Many people said, you always want to know who your target audience is and you want to find the right channel to reach them,” Ranchhod said. “How you package your message for different audiences is also very important,” Branson added.
SALDRU’s researchers found the learning tour extremely useful. One cannot take a one-size-fits-all approach to communicating one’s research findings. One needs to seek out “multiple channels of communication”. This is something both Branson and Ranchhod will be taking on board.