Civic engagement by universities can be dangerous, too

While universities are increasingly encouraging students to be involved in the community and to become engaged citizens, they do not necessarily have control over activities that take place on campuses, or spill onto the streets.

“We encourage students to be actively engaged, but it can be dangerous, too,” said Stephen Chan, head of the office of service learning at Hong Kong Polytechnic University.

Hong Kong has seen two months of student led protests and street occupations over the city’s undemocratic voting system imposed by China. Many have been forcibly removed from the streets by riot police, using teargas and pepper spray.

Chan told a global conference of the Talloires Network of community engaged universities, meeting in Cape Town from 2-4 December, that some students had been encouraged to take part in civic engagement programmes by schools and universities in Hong Kong as part of a recent revamp of the curriculum to turn out well-rounded graduates.

“And now they are in trouble.”

Student representatives, who were present for the first time at a Talloires conference, said the “elephant in the room” for universities increasing student social engagement is how far they would allow university premises to be used for political activities.

Some university leaders suggested that student social engagement should be limited to social causes and not political activism.

Keynote speaker Reeta Roy, CEO of the MasterCard Foundation, to whom Chan’s question was directed during audience questions, said there were many areas where students could play a role in transforming their institutions. Countries needed innovators in the economic area, health care, social justice and so on, she said.

Lively debate

But from the lively debate that continued afterwards in and outside the meeting rooms, it was clear that some students did not agree with the notion of limits on community engagement and active citizenship.

Laura-Jane Watkins, a law student at the University of the Free State in South Africa, told the conference. “Our vice-chancellor has banned politics”, as a result of politically inspired unruly – and sometimes destructive – student behaviour.

“It is important that we don’t ban student politics on our campus but ensure we build a positive political environment,” Watkins said. “Our universities can become a force for political beliefs.”

Some universities urge students to refrain from overtly political activities, without necessarily setting boundaries. Others have no choice but to curb them because of existing laws – but are unclear on how to act when ‘breaches’ occur.

Some Asian cases

A Malaysian delegate told University World News that party-linked political activities were banned from universities in the country by law. This year some students and academics have also been charged with sedition.

“We cannot allow them to do what is illegal. Staying within the law is also part of being an active citizen,” the delegate said.

Syed Irtiza Shah, associate professor of aerial robotics and head of the community service programme at Pakistan’s National University of Sciences and Technology, said: “We don’t tell students not to go into politics but we say they should not use the university for political activities.”

Pakistani campuses often see politically motivated violence and problems of religious fundamentalism. “Students can be as religious as they like but we say ‘do it in your room, and do not impose it on someone else’.”

Shah said the university’s community service programme offered a range of activities that provided alternatives to political activities and religious extremism. “We have so much to offer the students. They should participate in those.”


But Nadine Hosny, a student at the American University in Cairo, was outraged at any suggestion that student activities should be limited to “safer” alternatives, such as social assistance to the community rather than politics.

If students’ political activities got them into trouble “then it is a problem of the government, not the students”, she told University World News.

“Universities are platforms where you should express yourselves. Educational facilities are supposed to be think tanks, and banning student from expressing themselves goes against this.” She noted that even when such activities were banned by law, as has occurred in Egypt, “all that happened was that it had to go underground”.

Since the Arab Spring and Cairo’s Tahrir Square protests, such activities had become dangerous, with more than 4,000 detained. “Half of those who were shot, were shot on campus,” Hosny said. “The problem is how to find a way to help students do what they want, and feel safe on campus.”

South Africa

South Africa’s acting president and Minister of Science and Technology Naledi Pandor, referring to the case at the University of the Free State, said: “If you attack a domestic worker, your university has failed.”

Referring to the importance of values and university ethos, she said some young people born well after the era of racist laws in South Africa commit racist attacks. “We as adults have failed and we must address that through community engagement.”

Pandor told the conference: “We were very fortunate in the 1970s and 1980s that we had in our universities young people who were very committed to being part of the struggle for freedom [against apartheid]. And I think we have become too elitist, too comfortable. I think we need to generate a new activism.”

Most of South Africa’s political parties were active on campuses, she said.

Rather than ban them, “we need to look at the practice of political discourse that they introduce on our campuses and whether it advances democracy or detracts from it. I think you as student leaders need to be influential in that regard,” said Pandor.

Hong Kong and China

For his part, Hong Kong’s Chan said universities that promoted civic engagement had been blamed by pro-establishment groups in Hong Kong for student activism that had brought traffic in the city to a standstill for days on end.

“I don’t believe that what we [teachers] are doing has an impact on these events,” he said, referring to student protests, although he admitted that students “are certainly a lot more aware of what is happening in society and the political system. But I would say the majority of students do not care enough.”

Nonetheless, those involved in community engagement at his institution should stay away from politics. “We have no subjects that are overtly political,” said Chan, referring to his institution’s engagement programmes.

“We steer away from advocacy and stay in more neutral territory, in areas that won’t cause much disagreement, such as health care and technology.”

However, with large numbers of Hong Kong students going to China for projects that engage with disadvantaged Chinese communities, there were concerns among some students that they could be detained by the Chinese authorities, while in China, because of their pro-democracy activities in Hong Kong.

“China wants our students to go to the mainland to be exposed to the mainland Chinese system,” said Chan, adding that the solution was to advise students 'not to go to places the Chinese government does not want you to go', and stay away from sensitive subjects like Xinjiang and Tibet.”

“We send hundreds of our students to projects in China and so far we have not had any problem. Our China projects are very popular and we turn many students away.”

“We are already talking to a number of Chinese institutions who are asking for workshops on service learning.” Concerned about a generation of spoilt and selfish young people, China is promoting more service learning.

Within China there is a long tradition of sending city youth to the countryside to work alongside local communities and bridge the divide between the two.

“But that does not involve any teaching,” Chan said, adding that China was looking towards Hong Kong and the West for examples of civic engagement.