Can community action open up universities?

Community work by university staff and students is often seen as an add-on to academic core business. But can it actually be more than that? Can it help to attract students from traditionally underrepresented groups? Can it bridge the gap between higher education and communities that have traditionally been excluded from it? And can it even benefit the core curriculum?

Those questions will be key parts of the debate as the Talloires Network of 315 engaged universities in 72 countries convenes its 2014 conference in Cape Town early next month. Their answers seem to vary in different parts of the world.

Although hard evidence is difficult to collect, it appears to be quite widely accepted that community action benefits the students who engage in it. Connecting with, and supporting, disadvantaged communities generates more rounded students, whose outlook stretches beyond the often relatively narrow horizons of their fields of study.

But the benefits of community action stretch well beyond enrichment of individual students.

In many parts of the world community action is used as a way to involve traditionally underrepresented groups in higher education. How well this works depends very much on the political setting.

Women in Pakistan

Social inclusion was one of the cornerstones of the establishment of Fatima Jinnah Women University in Rawalpindi, Pakistan. Community work is obligatory for all students and more than a way of maturing them, or even paying back to the communities they came from.

“We were the first university in Pakistan specifically for women, who otherwise would not have been able to enter higher education,” says Vice-chancellor Samina Amin Qadir.

“We send them back into their communities during their studies – to support education, health, media or civil society. For us this is a way of integrating them in semi-controlled circumstances into society,” says Qadir.

“But as they go out, we experience that they serve as role models. These are women who have got a bachelor degree and stayed at home for some years before they came to us. Some of them were the first women in their communities to enter higher education.

“When they returned to their communities we found that more and more of their sisters would also turn to us.”

Many of Jinnah’s students come from remote communities. Some have never driven in a car before they get to Rawalpindi. The university can be a sharp contrast with their home environment, which does not always make things easy.

“We don’t want to turn our students into rebels, but we try to make our students aware of cultural values, religious values and their legal rights, and this is not always appreciated,” Qadir continues.

“When we started this we got a lot of objections from the parents, who would say: ‘We sent her to study software engineering, what is she doing looking at legal rights? This is a digression from what she is supposed to do’. But we reply that we are just making them well-rounded human beings who are aware of their status and position in society.”

Brownie points in South Africa

In South Africa, where the black majority is the most significant underrepresented group in higher education, community work also has a promising potential for reaching out, but this potential is stifled by the lack of capacity in higher education.

There is no incentive because there are no places and why would a university bother to take in a student who is going to need far more support than another?

Julia Preece of the University of Kwazulu-Natal tries to use service learning, which combines classroom instruction with meaningful community service, to connect universities and communities. She focuses on power dynamics and the co-creation of knowledge.

“In South Africa we have this notion of responsible community engagement, meaning that we should not just be parachuting into a community, do our thing and move out again. We should not just do research in communities for our own benefit. We should be doing something that is mutually beneficial.

“But with busy students it is very difficult to establish such relationships from scratch. So we work through NGOs who identify particular project needs that our students can get involved in and contribute to,” Preece explains.

“Project examples span anything from involvement in local training for crèches, to helping local isiZulu-speaking councillors produce their reports in English, to family literacy projects.”

The impact here, however, was not so much getting local communities involved in the university, but the status value of having a university showing an interest in their work.

“This suddenly meant that the people in these communities carried a seal of approval and this had a clear impact on the results of their work,” says Preece.

“When you work with communities that are far away from the universities, you’re not going to get an immediate recruitment drive, but what you do is bridge the gap. People begin to start thinking about whether their children could go to university or not.”

Still, as long as there is insufficient capacity to absorb more students, it is hard to argue in favour of this effect of community engagement.

“It does increase students’ employability and it does also increase students’ sense of civic responsibility. And that is our main aim because universities here are still elitist and even though we now have many black students here, they are still middle-class black students.”

“The majority of academics are not that much in tune with local communities. We met a lot of resistance initially. Less now, but the university structure STILL does not support the idea of community work. People get credits for publications and research, not for community work,” Preece continues.

“If we want to make universities responsive to their communities, I think the most urgent need is for financial and career development incentives to be attached to community engagement.

“Staff must get brownie points for community work, like they do for teaching and publications. As it is, they don’t get time for it, they don’t get allowances for it and they don’t get credit for it.”

Demand-driven Australia

This is dramatically different in Australia, where higher education is much more demand-driven, in part as a consequence of an important 2009 review by Denise Bradley, former vice-chancellor of the University of South Australia, that highlighted the dramatic under-representation in higher education of students from lower socio-economic status backgrounds.

The University of Western Sydney works in a traditionally challenging part of the city with a lot of people from a low socio-economic status background.

The university is one of the founding members of the Talloires Network and its constitution specifically refers to serving its surrounding community. Some 160 different ethnic communities live in Western Sydney and it has the largest urban aboriginal population in Australia.

Barney Glover is the university’s vice-chancellor.

“Australian universities receive funding for every student that they can attract, with no caps. What’s more, we receive substantial funding to provide enhanced support to students from traditionally under-represented backgrounds,” he says.

The results are striking.

The university has developed a whole raft of programmes to enhance participation of students from traditionally disadvantaged backgrounds. Staff and students visit secondary education institutions and invite young people over to the university to give them a taste of what higher education is like.

According to Glover, the benefits for the university are tremendous and reach well beyond just receiving the extra funding.

“By not engaging the potential of students from lower socio-economic status backgrounds, we were not only doing these communities a disservice, but there was also a significant loss to the Australian economy.”

The education department of the University of Western Sydney has a mandatory programme of community service for students.

Eric Brace of the Australian Literacy and Numeracy Foundation works with the department on one of the 20 activities that students can choose from: the Refugee Action Support Programme.

His project sends university students out to help the city’s primary and secondary school pupils with a refugee background to improve their basic literacy and numeracy skills, eventually increasing their chances of getting into higher education.

“The students give, but they receive a lot too,” says Eric Brace. “In fact, some students almost feel guilty about feeling that they learn more from tutoring refugee children than the children themselves do.

“And they obviously take their experiences back with them to the university.”

Because of the success of the project in Sydney in 2007 and 2008 it was replicated at Charles Sturt University in Wagga Wagga in 2009 and later in Albury-Wodonga, between Sydney and Melbourne.

Does this kind of work help the refugee pupils to access higher education later on?

“The university recently completed a study on tertiary pathways for students with a refugee background that I was involved in, so, yes, I know that on a small scale university civic engagement activities do affect enrolment."

A historical drive in the US

In Auburn, Alabama in the United States, students help Appalachian communities at a much more practical level.

Mark Wilson coordinates the community and civic engagement activities of the university’s College of Liberal Arts, which sends a group of students into the Appalachian hinterlands each spring to help with whatever chores the local communities face when the students visit.

He believes the history of the US and American higher education puts the country’s civic engagement work in a very different position.

“We are part of the land-grant tradition in the United States," says Wilson.

“In the mid-19th century the people in power said that we needed educational institutions that would educate the sons and daughters of the mill workers and the farmers, particularly in rural areas.

“So we live in that tradition of extending what we do to people living around the state and this probably means that we do get more credit for community work than others elsewhere in the world.

“Of course we exist to make students professionals, but at the same time we ask them to be certain types of people. It’s that sort of character development and that understanding of your place in the world that we seek in our students,” says Wilson.

The role of the university

But is that the role of the university?

“Of course it is! It’s about education. It’s about formation. If education was only about developing a skill without deepening all those other aspects of our lives, then we might as well be a factory and do online education in our pyjamas.”

As we increasingly do… Such noble thoughts sit uncomfortably in a time when everything is being rationalised, public spending is cut and higher education targets efficiency at least as much as effect.

European policymakers would cringe.

But knowledge has its place in the equation for Mark Wilson too. Just in a slightly different way.

“There is one sort of knowledge that comes from textbooks and scientific exploration. There’s another form of knowledge that comes from experience, practical wisdom and prudence. To gather this kind of knowledge can only make students better employees and ultimately better citizens.

“One narrative for the success of this kind of work is that students come back and say they went to serve and gained more than they gave. That’s often the crown jewel – what we want students to say, but I’m not so sure. I think that we should look for a narrative where they leave their community work with an experience that simply raises more questions.

“I don’t want students to leave feeling that they’ve been very good. I want them to leave wanting more of what they’ve experienced. And I want them to leave with more respect for the people they have met. Not with the pity that is more common,” says Wilson.

“On a deeper level, we are breaking down the stereotypes of college students. What we hope to do ultimately is to help to bridge this gap between rural and urban communities. I know this sounds kind of intellectual and academic, but it does happen, because they have stereotypes about us just as we have about them.”