New community-university engagement network formed

A new higher education network has been launched to support partnerships and relationships around community-university engagement and community-based research in East African countries – Burundi, Ethiopia, Kenya, Rwanda, South Sudan, Tanzania and Uganda.

George L Openjuru, deputy vice-chancellor of the University of Gulu in Uganda, says the network seeks to answer the overall question of how universities in East Africa can play a stronger role in working with communities, in order to respond to complex and pressing challenges of our times.

“Universities in Africa will need to refocus their efforts on attending to problems that are affecting their communities. This can be done by promoting the concept of community-university research partnership,” says Openjuru.

First meeting

Last week, the first East African networking meeting in the field of community-university engagement was held in Uganda, hosted by the University of Gulu and Makerere University under the auspices of the UNESCO Chair in Community-based Research and Social Responsibility in Higher Education.

The event brought together representatives from universities and community organisations from East Africa to assess developments in university engagement, look at policies and practices and see how regional collaboration could advance developments in the field.

Professor Budd Hall of the University of Victoria in Canada, co-holder with Rajesh Tandon of the UNESCO chair, said that in many ways universities missed out if they did not make connections with communities.

The network will create a structure to match community needs with university resources. Hall says it will also give visibility to people who work with the communities, because they are isolated right now.

Universities have what it takes, Hall adds – “smart people, access to funding and students. But they are not doing research together with the communities. If universities paid attention they would make a big impact.”

It was observed during the meeting that communities use knowledge in different ways and universities no longer have a monopoly over knowledge generation. Yet they have a role in the development of the communities where they are located.

Not new to Africa

The idea of community-university engagement is not new to Africa, according to higher education scholars. It has its origins in East Africa. At first the concept was rejected by the North, but now universities worldwide are pushing for it.

Mwalimu Julius Nyerere, former president of Tanzania, described those who did not use higher education for the betterment of society as ‘traitors’. He was one of the first African leaders, together with Ghana’s Kwame Nkrumah, to push for universities to play a leading role in meeting the needs of communities.

Openjuru says community-university engagement is defining a new direction for universities around the world, and particularly in Africa, which faces enormous social, economic and political challenges that require the attention of higher education institutions.

And some universities in East Africa have been doing just that.

Dr Mpoki Mwaikokesya, a lecturer in adult education and lifelong learning at the University of Dar es Salaam, says the institution has been involved in community engagement but in a collective way.

“It has been done. Some people were doing it for their own interest or donors' interests, which was not solving community problems. The network will be useful. It will formalise and push the agenda forward,” he says.

At Moi University, community-university engagement has been done through activities like the ‘peace run’ since the area – Eldoret – suffered from election violence and is home to many Kenyan runners. The university also engages in community dialogues.

Professor John Boit, registrar of academics and extension at Moi University, told University World News that the forum would enable universities to assist communities in a formal way and change the higher education environment. “Community is a reality.”

Philemon Mukisa, an assistant lecturer in adult education at Makerere University, says engagement has been done through an education for sustainable development club. Community outreach programmes have been held on international days, like world food day.

But the community has not understood the university well. “They look at us as donors. As if we are doing charity work. The engagement has also not been consistent because there is less funding,” says Mukisa.

* On 28 October the East African launch of the Global University Network for Innovation – GUNi – report took place at Makerere University. World Report on Higher Education 5: Knowledge, engagement and higher education: Contributing to social change is the first comprehensive global report on the area of higher education contributing to social change, and has contributions by 75 authors from 56 countries.