Crucial engagement questions for Talloires universities

Why is it that while universities talk increasingly about civic engagement, the world is heading in exactly the opposite direction? asked Professor Adam Habib, vice-chancellor of the University of the Witwatersrand, in the opening keynote at the Talloires Network conference.

“Our world is far more unequal – every single indicator shows this – and far more socially polarised than it’s ever been.”

Organisers of the conference, held in Stellenbosch outside Cape Town from 2-4 December and attended by more than 240 delegates from around the world, had posed many questions to be debated, said Habib – and he wanted to suggest others.

The first was the problem of growing inequality.

“Let’s have the courage to ask the simple question. We have never spoken as much about civic engagement in universities as we have in the last 25 years. And yet our world is far more unequal in 2014 than it was in 1990 and it was in 1975.”

While there was much talk and action on the ground, including by a swelling number of NGOs, the world was becoming the opposite of the intention. “What is wrong with our conversations?”

The second question, Habib told university leaders from around the world and 40 students at the gathering, was about how to convince colleagues who for decades had being working in particular ways, to work in other ways. “How do we win them over to the project of making civic engagement core to the teaching and research enterprise?”

Third was how to expand university engagement without increasing the financial burden on the poorest communities or unnecessarily extending the learning process for students. “And how do we do it in a way that enhances the pedagogical project of learning?”

Fourth, said Habib, was a structural question. “Incredible systemic pressures prompt bureaucrats like me to create a disabling environment for civic action. How do we change these systemic pressures on the bureaucracies of universities so that they can make the kinds of choices that would create an enabling environment?”

Answering such questions was central to creating the political will to take civic action seriously in universities and making it core. “Political will is necessary if we are to move from the realm of rhetoric to the realm of action.”

If South African delegates were hoping to hear about political will at the very top, they were disappointed. Minister of Higher Education and Training Dr Blade Nzimande, who was supposed to be the first keynote speaker, failed to pitch up.

An appropriate place

Nevertheless, Habib said, there could not be a more appropriate place than South Africa in which to stage the first Talloires Network conference held in the global South – the previous gatherings were in France and Madrid.

“There are not many countries in the world where universities have had such a direct impact on their society.”

It was striking that universities in South Africa were at the forefront of the anti-apartheid struggle, sometimes in institutional form but many more times through students and staff who were directly involved.

There were many people in universities who gave up their lives for the struggle. “They paid the ultimate price to bring an authoritarian system to an end. Hundreds of others, many in this room, were imprisoned at one time or the other.”

So universities, and their staff and students, had played an instrumental role in one of the greatest successes of the latter part of the 20th century. Post-apartheid, “universities were immersed in policy processes, research, teaching and in active engagement to rebuild society”.

South Africa, said Habib, was a fascinating social laboratory because universities had a part in both destroying and recreating the political system, with the objective to achieve a system that was more humane, equitable and equal.

“So South African universities were active agents in the struggle for liberation, and have been active agents in the struggle to reconstruct society,” said Habib.

Civic role subverted

It was also striking that post-apartheid, the civic and engagement role of universities had to an extent been subverted. So universities became not only interesting case studies of how to succeed in breaking and recreating systems, but also in the ways universities sometimes fail.

Two decades ago there was a debate in a journal called Transformation between two academics at the University of the Witwatersrand – Max Price, then director of the Centre for Health Policy and now vice-chancellor of the University of Cape Town, and Eddie Webster, who was then director of the Sociology of Work programme.

The debate was a reflection on the role of universities and academics in assisting the processes of reconstruction.

Price worried that in engagements with the new government, progressive academics involved in the anti-apartheid struggle were expected to simply deliver a technical consultancy service, and that this would subvert the essence of the role of the university’s engagement.

Webster recognised that challenge, but contended that if universities did not engage with government, they would miss opportunities to have significant social impacts.

“What that conversation did was bring to the fore very early on in our democracy the great possibilities of engagement, but also the danger that engagement could become formal and technical, without the substantive purpose that engagement promised to deliver,” Habib said.


A white paper on higher education adopted after democracy in 1994, and much of the post-apartheid discourse, recognised the importance of the civic role and social impacts of the university – but unfortunately, this was still seen as the university’s ‘third’ mission.

This had the unintended consequence of marginalising civic engagement as an auxiliary activity, very much like the way social responsibility is imagined in the corporate sector.

This marginalisation was consolidated by the political economy in which universities were located, said Habib – the financial pressures of the post-apartheid era when the university system doubled from about 421,000 students to just over a million. “Monies and resources had to be directed to an expanding system of teaching and research.

“University vice-chancellors and bureaucrats like me began to deploy those resources in the places that they imagined they needed to be invested in. In that context civic engagement was seen as an unfunded mandate and effectively became a luxury unaffordable in the post-apartheid era.”

This was reinforced by global ranking systems, and the competitive dynamic between universities, which prioritised teaching and, especially, research and in the process delegated responsibility for civic engagement and social impact to somebody else.

“This is not to suggest that nothing good has happened over the last 20 years. Universities have admirably risen to the challenges of their context,” Habib said. Every single university had major, impactful engagement programmes in many areas – everything ranging from educational and other assistance in schools to legal aid and healthcare programmes.

Some involve students. At the University of Johannesburg, for instance, a survey of 50,000 students found that 3,500 did not have a decent meal a day. In response, it put a huge food insecurity programme in place.

The essential challenge

“Despite all of these fantastic activities, it is hard to deny that they are external to the core business of the university,” Habib continued. “That’s the essential challenge that confronts us. There is an urgent need for us to rethink civic engagement.”

If universities were to be relevant, they needed to be both nationally responsive and globally competitive.

“We cannot be truly world-class and globally competitive if we simply imitate the other, because we will always be a poor imitation.” Universities needed to become responsive to and address the challenges of their contexts.

Universities needed to understand how engagement could become central to teaching and research, “to the architecture of the university itself”. Empowering the disenfranchised had to be core to decision-making, Habib said.

“It needs to impact on admissions and assessment processes. It needs to impact on every single component of university life. Otherwise civic engagement and social impact is the ‘other’ thing you do when you’ve got some extra time.”

Good examples of how disciplines had internalised civic engagement into teaching needed to be pedagogically interrogated, lessons learned and good practices expanded.

“Research similarly can be governed by social impact considerations, and research methodologies must be informed by participatory processes – where this is warranted and where it can enrich the collection of data and the analysis.”

“How can you truly be responsive to your national context and the challenge of creating the 21st century citizen if civic engagement is not core to the agenda of the university?”