Should universities be more engaging?

Has community engagement become a mainstream part of what universities do? If not, how can it get there? These were some of the questions on the agenda at the 6th International Conference on Higher Education organised by the Global University Network for Innovation in Barcelona, Spain, from 13-15 May.

“How do we accelerate the process of transforming universities, which so often seem to be organisations brilliantly designed to resist change?” asked Robert Hollister, dean of the Tisch College of Citizenship and Public Service at Tufts University in the United States, opening day two of the conference.

Community engagement, defined by the Carnegie Foundation as collaboration between higher education institutions and their larger communities for mutually beneficial exchange of knowledge and resources, is a complex area.

It can mean different things to different people and institutions may engage in it for different reasons.

This can be in the name of social justice or community development, in order to transform the institution itself, as a form of charity – helping people in need – or as a way of exercising participatory democracy by getting involved in civic affairs, according to Andrew Furco, vice president for public engagement at the University of Minnesota in the United States.

Opinions also vary on where community engagement currently sits: at the core or on the periphery of university activities? Or maybe somewhere in between?

Shirley Walters, professor of adult and continuing education at the University of the Western Cape in South Africa, describes community engagement as still very marginal: “It is not at the centre of how universities think about themselves,” she said.

Engagement has become mainstream in countries such as Pakistan, South Africa, Australia, Malaysia or the US, according to Hollister, but to say that this is true for the rest of the world “would be an overstatement”.

In Latin America, extension officially joined teaching and research as one of the three pillars of higher education, as part of the early 20th century wave of reform kicked off by students protesting in Argentina in 1918.

These early moves to engage have been taken up once more in recent years. “Especially over the last 15 years, research and knowledge production that is not socially relevant is seen as somehow frivolous,” said María Nieves Tapia, founder of the Latin American Center for Service-Learning in Buenos Aires, Argentina.

What is clear is that community engagement is growing.

Since Concepción University in Chile revamped its in-service learning policy 12 years ago, it has been advising other universities on how to do the same. “We must have helped 35 to 40 universities so far and now more and more are asking for help,” said Gracia Navarro, head of studies on social responsibility.

There are signs of increasing activity in Europe, where there has been little tradition of engagement before now.

Spanish universities are moving to formalise an informal network on service learning that has grown up over the past five years, and the GUNI conference is the second big international event on community engagement to be held in Spain in just two years.

Countries such as the UK, with its National Co-ordinating Centre for Public Engagement set up in 2008, are establishing organisations to encourage universities to engage. Some universities have launched prizes such as that of the University of Minnesota for community-engaged scholars, awarded for the first time in April this year.

There is also a move to include engagement as a criterion for funding research; this is already a feature of funding in South Africa and the US, while Australian federal funding agencies have taken the step this year and, from next year, the UK will do so too.

Some universities, such as Albukhary International University in Malaysia, which provides courses for mainly foreign students from poor backgrounds, have made civic engagement a guiding principle.

Integration as opposed to separateness is another trend. Community engagement is increasingly being seen as an ingredient to be included in the mix across the whole range of university activity rather than something best confined to its own dedicated unit.

Universities are interested in finding ways that engagement can be used to boost the quality and relevance of teaching and research, according to Antoni Giró, rector of the Technical University of Catalonia.

As one example, Rosario city council in Argentina asked the local veterinary faculty to set up a clinic to treat the horses of the city’s cartoneros, or waste pickers. The vets came across illnesses and conditions, such as bone deformation due to the heavy workload, which had never been documented before and set up a new research project.

Students treating the horses gained useful experience and the cartoneros were able to access free treatment for their animals. “If the horse gets ill, this can be catastrophic for the cartonero,” said María Nieves Tapia. “This is an experience in teaching, research and extension all rolled into one.”

For some academics, the idea of universities getting so actively involved in the community may seem alien or even radical, but it can win a lot of support from people outside the institution.

“There is broad public support for universities playing a bigger role in society, especially in environmental and social issues,” said Andrew Petter, president of Simon Fraser University in Canada.

“Universities have already played big roles outside, such as maintaining educational elites. The idea that universities should do their bit for social justice is not such a radical idea, it is just a matter of levelling the playing field.”