Rapid growth in university engagement worldwide

Growing numbers of university leaders worldwide are seeing community engagement as a central priority, says Professor Robert M Hollister, executive director of the Talloires Network – a global coalition of universities committed to moving beyond the ivory tower. Rather than distracting from engagement, internationalisation is “dramatically reinforcing and accelerating that trend, through people learning from and influencing one another’s work”.

The network’s 2014 conference was held near Cape Town, South Africa, from 2-4 December – for the first time in the developing world.

With some 250 delegates from Talloires Network member institutions – 332 universities from 72 countries – learning was enriched by perspectives from the global South and from a large and ever-more international group of university leaders as the Talloires Network continues to grow.

Logic would suggest that as higher education becomes increasingly international, the pressure would be on universities to look outwards and globally rather than locally and nationally.

But today’s leaders of engaged universities see internationalisation as an opportunity, says Hollister, who is also a professor in the department of urban and environmental policy and planning at Tufts University in the United States, home to the Talloires Network secretariat.

“We don’t see or experience the trends towards globalisation as competing with or in any way undercutting community engagement work.

“The current generation of university heads includes many for whom community engagement is a major focus of their dynamic leadership,” notes Hollister.

“To cite just a few examples – Cheryl de la Rey, University of Pretoria in South Africa; Lisa Anderson, American University in Cairo; José Sanz, Universidad Autónoma de Madrid; Timothy Tong, Hong Kong Polytechnic University; Muhammed Asghar, National University of Sciences and Technology in Pakistan; and Michael Crow, Arizona State University in the US.”

Lessons from the South

University of Pretoria Vice-chancellor Cheryl de la Rey, who became vice-chair of the Talloires Network steering committee at the conference, describes the location of the 2014 conference in Africa as a “milestone”.

Unlike in the global North, “societies like ours are grappling with big disparities between a small group of wealthy people and a large group of people who are struggling to live on a daily basis".

“So when we talk about the global South, we are going to essentially for the first time look at different ways of seeing the role of universities in our varied socio-political environments,” De la Rey told University World News.

“We think we have profound lessons to offer, because we see community engagement as an integral part of the core business of university work, not as a kind of add-on or extension into the community.” At Pretoria, engagement is a core part of the formal curriculum: by the time students graduate, they have to have been involved in a community project.

“We’re really talking about the social responsibility of universities and how proactive they are in addressing some of the challenges of our social and political environment.”

Reality vs perception

Despite the important engagement work universities are doing, and its powerful impacts on communities and students, it is constantly apparent in all countries that there is a lack of understanding among decision-makers and the public of how “strong, energetic and rapidly expanding the engaged university model is".

“There’s a kind of communications gap or lag,” Hollister told University World News.

The network provides a platform for universities to speak as a collective, international voice to decision-makers who determine the future and resources of higher education, and to ramp up public awareness and support for university civic engagement.

So while the pioneers of university engagement operate within institutions and groups in different localities, the Talloires Network convenes regional and global conferences to amplify their collective experience and communication power.

It is very much operating within the broad internationalisation dynamic. Indeed, with a mission to deepen and sharpen the community work of its members, the Talloires Network is itself an example of how internationalisation can work to support local engagement. Further, almost all members of the network are involved in various forms of collaboration with other institutions – often in other countries.

Beyond the ivory tower

A couple of decades ago there was a noticeable uptick in community engagement, in terms of volume and types of activity ranging from student volunteering and community service that integrates community work into academic learning, to applied research and more direct involvement of academics in public policy-making.

“Over time there has been a real shift beyond the ivory tower. Universities are more intentionally and more substantially investing in innovating in their community engagement activities, and are using different vocabularies for talking about that work,” says Hollister.

“What’s exciting for us, what animates the work of the Talloires Network, is that this truly is becoming a universal movement – the number of universities that are embracing community engagement not as an interesting sideline but as a core activity, as a central dimension of their teaching and research; we see a huge increase in that work.”

The Talloires Network grew out of a first gathering of vice-chancellors, rectors and presidents in 2005. Tufts University has a conference centre in the foothills of the Alps in the town of Talloires, and invited a diverse group of leaders – 29 from 23 countries – to join a discussion about university civic engagement and social responsibility.

“It was the first time a substantial group of heads of universities had done so. We put together a geographically diverse group. Beforehand we worried a lot about whether they would just talk past each other since they came from such dramatically different places – Argentina, Sudan, South Africa, the United States, Australia,” Hollister recalls.

“But it was immediately apparent that in spite of differences of setting they had a huge extent of common vision and strategy. After forging a collective Talloires Declaration on the civic responsibilities of higher education, they said, ‘Let’s keep going, we want to continue the conversation and find ways of supporting each other’s work’.”

Growth of civic engagement and social responsibility is also increasingly reflected in the way universities market themselves, Matias Ramos, communications coordinator for the Talloires Network secretariat, told University World News.

Previously, many institutions highlighted opportunities for students to have a great experience on campus, with fellow students and professors. Now, they try to distinguish themselves from competitors by highlighting connections to their neighbourhoods, the cities that surround them, and how students have opportunities to participate.

“I think universities are trying to market themselves as being more inclusive, whereas in the past they might have been more exclusive. Civic engagement, community service, the real world experience is also valued both by students and prospective employers.”


Still, universities operate in an environment defined by a set of cross-pressures. The question arises, what constitutes community engagement work?

“For any institution it tends to be intensely local. But as is the case with some other topics and challenges in higher education, we’re in a period when global learning and exchange and cooperation around local community engagement work is a topic of very high attention.

“We’re astonished regularly by how eager our members are and how much initiative they take to connect with colleagues in very different parts of the world,” says Hollister.

A great cross-pressure universities are wrestling with is competing demands and expectations – particularly in the area of research. This includes the negative impacts, for instance, of research-oriented global ranking systems.

“We hear regularly that the quest for global recognition and reputation, defined with an emphasis on traditional research productivity and reputation measures, is a serious tension and distracts attention and resources and time away from community engagement activities.”

Another pressure has to do with student expectations and demands. The current generation of undergraduate students seeks an education that is both academically stimulating and practical enough to get them jobs and opportunities to make a difference to their lives.

Massification is another force, with universities in parts of the world under excruciating pressure to grow very rapidly. It is very difficult to do anything other than scramble to build more physical facilities, to staff institutions, to recruit and serve students – that is a major pressure and reality.

A further pressure is financial, particularly in the developing world where higher education has been under-financed, exacerbating strong political pressures to expand access.

Not all pressures work against community engagement. Powerful groups outside the academy – governments, businesses, NGOs and others – are with growing vigour demanding that universities make more direct contributions to tackling problems in communities.

“They are quite accurately seeing that in many areas there are vast untapped resources in higher education institutions for making a serious dent in those pressing society challenges,” says Hollister.

“For those of us who see the engaged university replacing the ivory tower, the exciting challenge is to figure out how to realistically navigate those cross-pressures and to respond to the mix of driving forces – those that facilitate community work and those that cut against it.”