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Co-production for or against the university: student loneliness and the commodification of impact in COVID-19

Fred Cooper (Wellcome Centre for Cultures and Environments of Health, University of Exeter, Exeter, UK)
Charlotte Jones (Wellcome Centre for Cultures and Environments of Health, University of Exeter, Exeter, UK)

Qualitative Research Journal

ISSN: 1443-9883

Article publication date: 22 June 2021

Issue publication date: 7 February 2022




This paper explores the dissonance between co-production and expectations of impact in a research project on student loneliness over the 2019/2020 academic year. Specific characteristics of the project – the subject matter, interpolation of a global respiratory pandemic, informal systems of care that arose among students and role of the university in providing the context and funding for the research – brought co-production into heightened tension with the instrumentalisation of project outputs.


The project consisted of a series of workshops, research meetings and mixed-methods online journalling between 2019 and 2020. This paper is primarily a critical reflection on that research, based on observations by and conversations between the authors, together with discourse analysis of research data.


The authors argue that co-producing research with students on university contexts elevates existing tensions between co-production and institutional valuations of impact, that co-production with students who had experienced loneliness made necessary space for otherwise absent support and care, that the responsibility to advocate for evidence and co-researchers came into friction with how the university felt the research could be useful and that each of these converging considerations are interconnected symptoms of the ongoing marketisation of HE.


This paper provides a novel analysis of co-production, impact and higher education in the context of an original research project with specific challenges and constraints. It is a valuable contribution to methodological literatures on co-production, multidisciplinary research into student loneliness and reflexive work on the difficult uses of evidence in university contexts.



The authors are especially thankful to the students who have shared with the authors throughout this project, and whose creativity and drive shaped the work the authors did together. The authors are also grateful to Prof. Mark Jackson, Prof. Manuela Barreto and Dr Ann Grand for their contributions to the discussions which helped to plan the initial workshops in their early stages, and to the QRJ reviewers and editors for their insightful feedback. This work was supported by the Wellcome Centre for Cultures and Environments of Health (203109/Z/16/Z) and the University of Exeter Provost's Fund. Fred is currently funded by a UKRI-AHRC grant, Scenes of Shame and Stigma in COVID-19 (AH/V013483/1).

This research was funded in whole, or in part, by the Wellcome Trust (203109/Z/16/Z). For the purpose of open access, the authors have applied a CC BY public copyright licence to any Author Accepted Manuscript version arising from this submission, in accordance with the grant's open access conditions.

Data access statement: Due to ethical concerns, the research data supporting this publication are not publicly available. Further information about the data and details of access will be available from the University of Exeter's institutional repository from 2022.


Cooper, F. and Jones, C. (2022), "Co-production for or against the university: student loneliness and the commodification of impact in COVID-19", Qualitative Research Journal, Vol. 22 No. 1, pp. 81-95.



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