University engagement – Perspectives from the global South

Next year Mexico will mark 100 years of policies on university engagement, and this work is a key area of focus for higher education in Pakistan. In the developing world including South Africa, most students may be from low-income families – and so many universities are of themselves an engagement project in terms of social upliftment and agency.

Despite rich and varied experience in the global South, there appears to be a tendency for international dialogue about university civic engagement and social responsibility to be dominated by perspectives of the global North. What are the lessons from the South?

The Talloires Network Leaders Conference in Cape Town next week will provide a rare opportunity for universities in developing and emerging countries to highlight their experiences and views, said Professor Nieves Tapia, director of the Latin American Centre for Service-learning based in Buenos Aires, Argentina.

She is also a member of the steering committee of the Talloires Network, a global coalition of 315 universities in 72 countries committed to civic engagement.

“Perspectives from the global North and the global South are very different,” Tapia told University World News. “Our histories are different, our traditions are different."

Especially in higher education, developing countries have for centuries followed trends coming from northern countries that headed empires and conquered the South. “But at this point we are more mature nations. We have growing concerns about our identities and roots, and about the pertinence of studies in regard to our own problems and communities.

“This has led to deep reflection about what engagement means for universities in the South.”

A century of experience

Latin America, Tapia pointed out, has “a centennial experience in engagement”. In 1915 it was written in Mexico’s constitution that every university graduate should provide a social service to the country, and community service before graduation has been mandatory since 1945. “Nobody graduates in Mexico without performing service to their communities.”

There was a movement in the 1920s Latin America called the ‘university reform movement’ that saw most countries pass laws establishing more democratic governance for universities, and another reform was that universities should have ‘extension to the community’. “That has been a distinctive feature of all of our public universities for almost a century now.

So we have this strong tradition of extension and engagement in our universities. There have been lots of publications and scholarly meetings about it. But they are written in Spanish and so nobody cares. It is difficult to reach the English speaking population of the world, including other colleagues in the South.

“Then in the 1960s or 1970s or even 10 years ago, England and the United States discovered engagement and now they are the founding fathers. That’s kind of funny.”

For its part, Tapia continued, Africa has a deep tradition of community bonding, of ubuntu – the idea that it takes a village to raise a child. “This is a very strong root in culture that naturally makes universities oriented to their communities.

“And Africa has this big discussion on decolonising universities that raises very important questions, valid not only for Africa but also for other parts of the global South.”

The university as engagement

In many universities in Africa, community engagement is a fundamental part of university activity – but perhaps not in the way one might expect.

One such institution in South Africa is Durban University of Technology, or DUT, a former polytechnic with a high proportion of students from disadvantaged backgrounds, located in an unequal country with a strong governmental equity agenda.

“I’ve been arguing with the minister that, for us at least, social justice is not an additional agenda – it is the agenda,” said Ahmed Bawa, a professor of theoretical physics and vice-chancellor of DUT. “Getting students from [poor, rural] Ndwedwe who just manage to get accepted, and making sure the university gives them a chance to succeed."

Previously, at many institutions the role of community engagement was primarily aimed at students, involving them in “poor communities that are ‘other’ than themselves”, and enabling them to grow through the experience, Bawa told University World News.

“But at DUT the students are the ‘other’. They come from those communities. We have to really rethink community engagement in that sense.

“It’s about building social agency among students, getting them to understand that they are not in communities simply to learn from those experiences but actually to try to understand how to galvanise communities, to improve the quality of life.

“It’s a slightly different twist if you like to the usual community engagement exercise.”

The university has been going through an interesting exercise developing a strategic plan, which has just been passed by council. The drafters concluded that DUT had two primary purposes: to give students a fair chance to succeed, so therefore student-centredness was at the middle of everything; and to understand and improve society.

“So now if you ask me what’s in the DNA of the university I’d say just two things. The one is student centredness and the other is engagement, and everything else – the teaching and learning and research – flows from those two threads,” said Bawa.

“Its been a wonderful backdrop for us to start thinking about how to construct a very new research system and how should we be thinking about the curriculum; what is the role of technology in the learning process; all of that kind of flows from those two threads.”

Pressing problems = opportunities for solutions

Civic engagement is also a key area of focus at the National University of Sciences and Technology, or NUST, in Pakistan. For Rector Muhammad Asghar this is fundamentally due to a very challenging context.

“Universities have faculty who have knowledge and understanding of technologies and they have students who combine idealism with passion. Together they represent a very potent force that can have a visible impact on society,” he told University World News.

Many countries in the global South experience violence and unrest, and hence security and stability are major issues. Sizeable portions of the population live below the poverty line, and education, health, gender inequality and environmental degradation are also major issues.

“When natural disasters hit these countries, they suffer more because of their lack of capacity and preparedness to respond. Governance is yet another issue. Consequently their capacity and capability to respond to challenges is limited.

“However, we realise that every problem is accompanied by a solution, and the more the diversity of challenges the greater the possibility of diverse responses. We understand that the responses may not be as well orchestrated as we see in the developed world. But civil society and universities need to help the nation come out of adversity.”

At NUST there are two major thrusts for civic engagement and community service, said Asghar. The first is using technology to find sustainable development solutions; the second is developing a system and culture of applying knowledge to achieve solutions.

But first, universities face a major challenge in convincing and motivating communities to cooperate. “The community takes time to develop trust in academia and many a time the low literacy rate gets in the way of this trust. Academia thus needs a few successful projects to develop an image of a community that delivers.”

Many universities in the South face eye-watering problems, Nieves Tapia agreed. “Our societies expect more from universities in terms of providing ideas and solutions to pressing social problems.

“Also, in most of our countries, arriving at university is itself a kind of privilege, so there is an imperative that students should give something back to their communities if they have been able to reach university.

“These two factors combined make our kind of engagement more relevant to the core of the university mission. I have seen in Malaysia, Africa, Latin America – universities developing programmes that are at the same time significant in research and relevant to problems in the community, with strong student participation in relevant service learning programmes, and social initiatives with high impact.

“The main difference is that we tend to relate engagement with a search for justice and social change. And in the North sometimes engagement has more to do with charity or with offering students hands-on learning opportunities.”

A change in thinking?

While the global North still dominates the world of higher education, the emerging world is snapping at its heels and in terms of engagement, the pressing problems provide a petri dish for new ideas.

Ahmed Bawa said that in South Africa, community engagement in the past depended heavily on external funding from foundations and donor agencies. “That was very useful and important, but at the same time I think it kind of shaped the way in which we thought about community engagement.

“In current times at DUT, we are thinking about community engagement in a much more organic way. It is really about how we revisit the way in which education and research takes place at the university, and integrating engagement into those core activities. It takes a very different flavour – a much more interesting flavour I think.”

“The second thing, which I think is crucial, is that we have to begin to think of engagement not just as a facility for exposing students to real life situations, but to see them as genuine sites for new knowledge production.”

Bawa gave the example of biotechnology lecturer Dr Paul Mokoena, who investigated fermentation used in cooking in Zulu households over the past century. He assembled a team of students, who spent months talking to generations of women and finding out exactly what they did, and then experimenting back in the laboratory to understand how the process of fermentation evolved over generations.

“That kind of knowledge is embedded in communities and can only really be picked up by engaging with communities in a very serious way. You can’t learn about that only in the laboratory. It also gives validation to the kind of knowledge embedded in communities – different kinds of knowledge that have surfaced through this process of engagement.”

There were several papers published, and Mokoena was approached by researchers in China who were doing similar work and wanted to collaborate. “The wonderful thing is that intense local knowledge has been suddenly globalised and taken onto the world stage,” said Bawa.

One of the things Bawa brought from the University of KwaZulu-Natal, where he was a deputy vice-chancellor before joining Hunter College and the Graduate Center at City University of New York, was “creating what we called ‘dynamic interfaces' between the teaching, learning and research functions and ‘outside’ voices".

“Saying, let me create spaces where there can be a fruitful interaction between the external and the internal – but impacting on the core of the university. So not just setting up structures that do community engagement, but seeing those interfaces as impacting on teaching and learning and research.”

As a polytechnic that became a university a decade ago, DUT is a new research operation, and has now set up a range of research centres. “We’ve sort of insisted that they must all create these interfaces between themselves and different communities of engagement outside the university.”

Learning from each other

Bawa believes there is a great deal to learn from other parts of the world, particularly but not only in the United States and Europe, where there is a lot going on. “But at the end of the day we really have to understand that we are based here and that we have to design our own approaches and systems and understand what the purpose is in terms of our locality.”

There should not be a global approach to engagement or a single model, within or between countries, he argued. “I think each university should understand what its purpose is and how to engage with its context in the best possible way.”

“Second is the idea that community engagement is not just about improving the legitimacy of universities – because that is what it was mainly about in the old days. It’s really about saying that we need to drive our knowledge project, the teaching and learning and research, and understand that engagement is a key site for knowledge production.”

Third, it is being increasingly understood that engagement can be important for validating knowledge that is embedded in communities and cannot be accessed in any other way.

Nieves Tapia said the North and South had different things to learn from each other.

Universities in the North had been doing research on impacts of community engagement and procedures to make it relevant to the academy and university. “They could help us to develop more tools to assess our work, evaluate our practices and strengthen the learning part of our service activities.”

“On the other hand, we have a lot to say about the services we provide to communities, especially the kind of relationships you should establish with the community.

“It could be very enriching to share our different traditions and see for example how the centennial Latin American experience of introducing engagement in national policies could be helpful for Africa or even for countries in the global North.”