SOUTH AFRICA: Engaging developments on the up

Community engagement has been embedded in South Africa’s higher education quality assurance system as a core function that universities must systematically develop and describe in institutional audits, along with teaching and research. Next month, universities will attend a World Bank and government-hosted workshop to brainstorm ideas, encourage collaboration on and develop a framework for community engagement.

The imperative for increased community engagement is particularly strong here. Over and above demands for accountability and the moral obligations that flow from a public role, universities are under continual pressure to tackle the huge socio-economic challenges of the developing world, as institutions that receive a large share of scarce public resources and whose students increasingly come from communities that are in dire need of support.

The Higher Education Quality Committee (HEQC) of the Council on Higher Education, a statutory advisory body, defines community engagement as “initiatives and processes through which the expertise of the higher education institution in areas of teaching and research are applied to address issues relevant to its community”.

The committee encourages community engagement in three of 19 criteria for institutional quality audits, said Professor Thomas auf der Heyde, dean of research at the University of Johannesburg: “This requires universities to adopt a more systematised approach to community engagement, implying the construction of a rational managerial framework in order to optimise its incorporation into core teaching, learning and research functions,” Auf der Heyde said.

South African universities are still grappling conceptually with community engagement and greater understanding of its rationale is needed, he told University World News. But, in responding to the HEQC criteria, universities have had to think seriously about this increasingly important activity which has helped focus their thinking

One quality assurance criterion in the area of institutional missions stresses the public role of universities; another demands provision of adequate resources for the core activities of teaching and learning, research and community engagement; while a third – number 18 – says universities should ensure that: “Quality-related arrangements for community engagement are formalised and integrated with those for teaching and learning, where appropriate, and are adequately resourced and monitored.”

Thus, according to Auf der Heyde: “Universities are expected to be ‘responsive’ to their environment, formulating goals and priorities that give effect to this responsiveness, provide sufficient resources for meaningful responses, integrate responses into institutional plans, encourage the extension of core activities through community engagement, and quality assure community engagement as a core function.”

These policy provisions will be boosted by support given by the World Bank, and the national Department for Science and Technology, for development of a framework that could help universities become involved in community engagement in new ways.

Bob Hawkins, a science and technology specialist at the bank in Johannesburg, said terms of reference have been drawn up and, at a conference on 6-7 March near Pretoria to which all South African universities have been invited, a community engagement framework and ideas will be brainstormed. It is hoped the framework will be ready in June, for a trial among some universities, Hawkins said.

He said the framework initiative followed an Africa-wide conference that pointed to the need for universities to play a more central role in developing knowledge economies. Also, it was argued that universities needed to engage more fundamentally with communities to allow them to participate in knowledge economies, and that pedagogy needed to become more practical to produce students with improved practical skills.

Through conversations with institutions in South Africa’s Gauteng province, universities have highlighted community engagement areas in which they would like to do more work and collaborate with the bank.

One area involves the curriculum and student involvement in community engagement. For instance, Hawkins said, the University of Pretoria’s engineering and the built environment faculty has a community project in which students are helping to teach maths in schools.

“Universities also want to look at ways in which students can more effectively be used as eyes and ears in communities for different types of data collection,” he added. A third area was to develop greater collaboration between South African universities working on community engagement activities, and a fourth was monitoring and evaluating the impacts of projects on both student work and on communities.

Hawkins said the bank and universities were particularly interested in exploring the ‘social entrepreneurship’ concept: “The idea is for students to consider social engagement in a longer term framework, and to stimulate sustainability for projects they are involved in. Rather than doing something for one semester, they think about how to make a longer contribution.

“Students will be encouraged to interrogate the basis of support needed to build institutions – to look at costs and sources of finance, for example, and to take business principles and see how they might be applied to public, non-governmental and private social endeavours.”

As the main objective of universities was education rather than creating a viable basis for NGOs, Hawkins explained, universities were also interested in integrating community engagement by students more into the curriculum – for academic credit or purely for learning purposes.