GLOBAL: Worldwide growth in university outreach

Voter education for students in the United States; social service placements for graduates in Scotland; storefront classes in Canada; student volunteers in African schools; the Living Knowledge network of ‘science shops’ across the planet. These and numerous other university programmes are moving community engagement out of the closet and into the mainstream of higher education worldwide, and generating a growing pedagogic branch alongside teaching and research.

Around the world, universities have always had a public role, beyond the core functions of teaching and research which are themselves a public (as well as a private) good. Writing in the Wingspread Journal 2007 – Beyond the ivory tower, Dr Judith A Ramaley, president of Winona State University in Minnesota, reflected on the public purposes of higher education:

“Sometimes,” she writes, “the emphasis is on preparing educated citizens or practitioners in especially critical fields. At other times, the discussion is about how public service can deepen and enrich learning and prepare students to lead purposeful, responsible and creative lives. Sometimes, the focus is upon institutions themselves as major intellectual and cultural assets and how those resources can be tapped to build healthy communities.”

Wingspread is the journal of the Higher Education Network for Community Engagement in the United States, which works to advance the literature, research, practice, policy and advocacy of community engagement as a core element of higher education’s role in society.

Ramaley charts the development of thinking around community engagement, culminating in current efforts to work on peer mentoring and policy changes. In following the discussions evolving through a series of Wingspread conferences, she writes, “a path becomes clear from individual experiences to engaged learning to engaged institutions to an engaged network.”

In America, Campus Compact came into being some 20 years ago, in response to concerns about the apparently increasing self-involvement and selfishness of students. Today it is a coalition of more than 1,000 university and college presidents, representing six million students, dedicated to furthering the public purposes of higher education.

Through a network of 32 state offices, Campus Compact explains, “institutions receive the training, resources, and advocacy they need to build strong surrounding communities and teach students the skills and values of democracy”. In the past five years, member institutions have reported a 60% increase in service participation, it says, and students working in areas ranging from literacy and health care to homelessness and the environment now contribute more than $5 billion a year in service to their communities.

The organisation recently launched a 2008 Campus Vote Initiative with a new non-partisan website that provides tools, activities and key information to help get students involved in the election process. It offers, among other things, information on the election process, campaign issues, voter registration drives, holding dialogues and models of campus activities.

“When campuses engage with their communities, they create a culture of civic-mindedness that has a lasting impact. Students receive real-world experience that enriches their academic learning and develops leadership skills; campuses create close ties with surrounding communities, which in turn become stronger; and higher education is seen as contributing to the public good,” said Campus Compact on its website.

In Scotland, Business Gateway in Glasgow has extended student engagement to graduates. It piloted a project, “Growing the social economy with graduates” that places recent graduates in social economy organisations to help them produce business plans, devise marketing strategies and set up websites. For their part, graduates are able to gain work experience and confidence in their abilities. In Canada the University of British Columbia encourages residents to help teach English to immigrants in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, at its Learning Exchange storefront.

Professor Thomas Auf der Heyde, dean of research at the University of Johannesburg, says there are at least three ways in which universities give expression to their ‘public role’ – by supporting (directly or indirectly) the imperatives of the state, by critically reflecting on society, and by producing skills and knowledge through teaching and research.

The public role of universities is one driver of community engagement, and another is the growing demand worldwide that universities become more accountable to their governments and communities. A third is a changing higher education environment that requires innovative responses from universities – for instances challenges posed by globalisation, and the key role that higher education plays in underpinning the ‘knowledge economy’.

Also, increasingly new knowledge is being generated at the interfaces between different knowledge domains and in fundamental new modes that require new forms of partnership. “Research is all about networking now; it is no longer about a scientist in a laboratory but is embedded in a wider context,” says Auf der Heyde. “New knowledge is being generated between disciplines, between the traditional scientific community and its environment – for instance communities – as well as at intersects between different social sectors.”

In South Africa, universities have a tradition of progressive interaction with communities and of NGOs positioned between community needs and intellectual and technical resources. Some are institutionalising the management of engagement, such as Free State and Rhodes universities, and there is a wealth of community activity, just one example being the use of students to support teaching in poor schools. Auf der Heyde believes that because of a strong history of community interface, South African universities have the potential to be at the forefront of thinking about engagement in the developing world.

In America, while many institutions first focused on ensuring that students were offered community engagement and volunteer service opportunities, Ramaley writes in the Wingspread Journal, it soon became clear that “these experiences could become powerful occasions for learning”, which led to drawing real-life experiences into the curriculum and using them for educational goals – a concept sometimes referred to as ‘integrated learning’.

“Integrated learning requires an environment in which students can bring together their formal studies and their life experiences, explore and understand the worldviews of different fields, learn how to examine a complex issue from multiple perspectives, and bridge the often daunting gaps between theory and practice, contemplation and action,” Ramaley writes.

“While engagement initially referred primarily to individual experiences, such as how students learn and how academics choose their research questions, as it spreads to shared experiences within departments and across disciplines, scholarship too begins to change and traditional distinctions between teaching, research and service begin to blur.”

“The scholarship of teaching blends with discovery, and all forms of scholarship can occur in a complex cycle of innovation that draws upon observation and experience to challenge theory and that applies theory to the understanding of experience,” Ramaley contends.

Engaged institutions are committed to direct and mutually beneficial interaction with external constituencies and communities, and these interactions enrich and expand learning and discovery while also enhancing community capacity. “The work of the engaged institution is responsive to (and respectful of) community-identified needs, opportunities and goals in ways that are appropriate to the campus’ mission and academic strengths,” she adds.

The concept of engagement is growing worldwide, and international networks have been formed. One example is the Talloires Declaration, in which an international group of institutional leaders advocated that higher education exists to serve and strengthen society (see US: Network promotes social responsibilities in this edition of University World News).

Another example is Living Knowledge, a movement that grew out of Holland and is now based in Germany that comprises an international network of ‘science shops’ and similar organisations – essentially, it is a contact and information exchange forum for people and organisations interested in community-based research and science’s relationship with society.

Through ‘science shops’, academics respond to civil society needs for expertise and knowledge across a range of fields – law, the environment, and community development, for instance. They are often linked to universities, and draw on scholars and students to conduct research, usually free of charge. There are now scores of ‘science shops’ in two dozen countries, mostly in Europe but also in the US, Australia and South Africa.

The idea of international networks, Ramaley concludes, is that universities should work together in an increasingly shared world: “By joining with other engaged colleges and universities around the world, we enrich our own lives and help to shape the emerging world order.”

View the full Wingspread article by Ramaley