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University engagement networks go global

National and regional groups of universities that promote community engagement have been increasing around the world – some of them at breakneck speed. Yet while facing an uphill task to set up valuable collaborations with local community groups, university engagement organisations are also connecting globally to learn from one another.

International links help them see how to overcome their own problems, say the leaders of national and regional groups.

While focused on their own citizens and areas, the growth in regional and national groups means the global network of community-engaged universities is also growing, including the network of networks, known as the Talloires Network which is holding its 2014 Talloires Network Leaders Conference in South Africa from 2-4 December.

“There is a similar development trajectory for regional and national networks,” notes Amy Newcomb Rowe, programme manager at the Talloires Network based at Tufts University in the US.

In the early years, the overwhelming task was to set up university collaborations with community groups to place students. The next stage is extending the collaboration so that it works two ways - universities learning from communities and engagement becoming an integral part of the university curriculum, according to research at Tufts.

“Internationally they focus initially on exchange of experience and later joint programmes,” Newcomb Rowe says.

Disengaged youth

One of the longest established national university community engagement organisations is the US Campus Compact. With more than 1,100 member institutions since it was founded in the 1980s, this shows how the notion of engagement has evolved over the decades.

Campus Compact grew out of a general perception that young people were disengaged from public questions. “Since the 1990s there was a movement towards connecting this work more directly with the curriculum,” says Andrew Seligsohn, president of Campus Compact.

Practical experience in the community “can advance student learning both about the disciplinary questions they would be studying in courses and also about how to be effective in communities,” he says.

“We see colleges and universities now in broader terms than just as places that are educating students. We view them as vital elements of the communities in which they are embedded, and we are moving in the track of engagement being unexceptional, if not universal; as normal as taking a biology course.”

More recently, the relationship involves more academic research and student learning, underpinning a longer term engagement, he says.

A similar trajectory has been followed by the much smaller but rapidly growing Campus Engage Ireland in existence since 2007 but which rapidly scaled up in a matter of months from five institutions to 17 – almost all of Ireland’s 19 universities.

Kate Morris, coordinator of Campus Engage, describes the growth in Ireland as organic: “We saw in our society a deep sense of apathy of voters,” she says. “This was a way of connecting young people to communities around them.”

Campus Engage has also evolved into a two-way benefit for the community and the universities involved: “Previously engagement was more ad hoc. Now it is systematically incorporated into the curriculum, and accredited,” says Morris. “Staff want to change the way the curriculum is delivered and make it more practical.”

It is also adding to the knowledge base. Students can create policy papers for policy change, and these are informed by the community. There is a need for evidence-informed research, she says, pointing to work in Ireland on high fuel costs and the access to heating for older people, that has been informed by such community engagement.

Impact on research

The Latin American group known by its Spanish initials CLAYSS Centro Latinoamericano de Apredizaje y Servicio Solidario – is based in Buenos Aires in Argentina with 20 collaborating universities and organisations. This is one of the more mature groups, founded in 2002 but with antecedents going back decades in the Solidaridad or support movement in several Latin American countries.

Member universities are also moving more towards “hybrid work”, with research, teaching and engagement going hand in hand, according to CLAYSS director Nieves Tapia.

“There is a growing research field on service learning and engagement. This research is born from engagement, and not from traditional university-based research. New research is coming up around public health issues, and I think that is very exciting,” Nieves says.

“Universities are gaining as much as they are giving in the partnership, and becoming more integrated with the communities they serve. Already we need to be more rigorous about academic outcomes of community engagement.”

This trend has led to the first academic journal on community engagement to be published by CLAYSS and the University of Barcelona this year, for academics to share research on service learning and engagement.

Engagement Australia has also spurred the peer-reviewed biannual Australasian Journal of University Community Engagement. And, like other local and regional groups, Engagement Australia is expanding to cover more areas of engagement.

“While Engagement Australia began in higher education, its future will encompass individuals, business, industry, and community-based organisations,” says Megan Le Clus, director of Engagement Australia. “It was set up in 2005 and now has 34 member institutions – three quarters of the country’s universities.”

Another network, AsiaEngage, was launched in 2012 and now has 76 member universities around Asia.

“Our most recent challenge is to get participation from different groups of university-community engaged practitioners, says Saran Kaur Gill, president of AsiaEngage and deputy rector at Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia which hosts the AsiaEngage secretariat.

“Time and again we get higher participation and support from the same countries and institutions – the Philippines, Thailand and Indonesia – where community engagement is entrenched in their curriculum at universities,” she says. “The sharing of experiences brings member universities from different countries together with a common belief that the challenges faced in the communities are in fact universal, common and not at all unique to one community or country alone.”

At the same time, community engagement in Asia is evolving and will change further: “We will need to further the mission of community engagement by professionalising the field through research, publications and capacity building, which itself will ensure they are trailblazers for Asian partnerships in this age of collaboration,” Gill says.

Scarce resources

Another challenge, and one shared by others around the world, is to find ways to make the network more self-sustainable and not dependent on external funding alone, she says. All these challenges come in addition to regional expansion and growing remit.

“Despite these trends (of broadening out) we are still struggling with the old kind of engagement,” says Nieves, who recounts a constant battle with scarce resources in Latin America.

Lack of resources is a constant refrain, particularly in emerging economies. Darren Lortan of the Durban University of Technology, is national coordinator of the South African Higher Education Community Engagement Forum or SAHECEF .

“We are not growing at the pace we should. The main reason is simply that the activities are not funded by government, so they are being limited. Often university vice-chancellors in South Africa grappling with funding shortages for teaching don’t see the value added,” Lortan says, describing community engagement as the “Cinderella” of the university system.

But this does not necessarily curb the enthusiasm of dedicated staff building contacts with the community. Community activities often have to be done “subversively,” as Lortan puts it. “There are ways and means, within the constraints, to do things. A lot of community engagement is taking place in the name of research. The downside is that managers say you are coping, why do you need more money?”

Similarities and differences

Even under such constraints, leaders of national and regional networks see a need to reach out internationally to learn from others, as the growth of the international Talloires Network at Tufts University with 325 member universities in 72 countries has shown.

Research at Tufts finds that regional and national networks focus initially on exchange of experience, and later joint programmes. Sometimes these exchanges serve to highlight the differences.

“We used elements from the US experience,” says Lortan in South Africa. “But then we realised that there are elements from the US model that don’t fit. For example, most of the students here in South Africa going out to poor and disadvantaged communities are themselves from those communities.”

But a truly international network means that there are always others at the same stage, and with similar challenges. “We are finding some synergy with the rest of the global South. We share the same philosophy” Lortan says, adding that the Talloires Network makes a “bold effort to focus on leadership” and that is important for developing national networks.

Cross-border

Learning from others is key in the drive towards international partnerships: Argentinian universities are beginning to collaborate with Kenyan institutions to help them with capacity building in community engagement.

The Latin American network is also involved in faculty training in several universities in South Africa. “It has been a very interesting exchange because even without our huge cultural differences, some problems are not so different,” says Nieves.

Engagement Australia is seeking to collaborate with Engagement Thailand which is looking for guidance in building their network. Sometimes, too, groups in richer countries are able to assist those in emerging countries with funding.

Campus Engage Ireland has been able to secure European funding for its national network and projects including Tawasol which supports university civic engagement in Jordan and Lebanon.

Campus Compact in the US already includes members from the Pacific islands, Egypt, Lebanon and Mexico.

“Individuals, universities and communities are not isolated,” says Talloires’ Newcomb Rowe. “With the increase in regional and national networks, we see a global movement of understanding diminishing isolation and enabling relationships.”

* University World News is the media partner to the 2014 Talloires Network Leaders Conference
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