Put values at the heart of university engagement

“As higher education institutions think about what they offer young people in terms of curricula, in terms of research opportunities, they also have to think about values, ethics and character,” said Naledi Pandor, South Africa’s minister of science and technology, in the concluding keynote at the global Talloires Network Leaders Conference.

If out of universities come graduates who are homophobic, sexist, racist or cultural bigots, then they are failing in the role they should play, said Pandor. “At times we develop the pride of intellectual achievement but give inadequate attention to the value of social engagement.

“We sometimes produce very vocal young people, very angry young people, but not measured in their thinking, not alert to the need for engagement and persuasion.” These were frequently preconditions for progress.

The Talloires Network of community engaged universities – there are now 332 member universities from around the world – “must never define itself only in terms of community engagement projects. It must add ethics and encourage universities to give much more attention to this sometimes missing element in the work that we do.”

Pandor said she hoped to see the network forging more partnerships as it continued to grow globally – not only with big and urban universities, but also with more rural and marginalised institutions that had a crucial and distinct role to play in community development.

She had in mind institutions such as the University of Fort Hare, which despite being in a deep rural part of the Eastern Cape province, produced South African and African leaders such as Nelson Mandela and OR Tambo.

“How can it be that a small, little-known institution can give rise to such men and women? It says something about ethos, about tangible understanding of the need to commit to society and to altering it.”

An emerging priority

In South Africa, said the minister – also acting president at the time – civic engagement continued to be a subject of much debate among policy-makers and universities and there was no institution that did not have some sort of engagement programmes.

More than two decades ago, before the dawn of democracy and when Pandor was a lecturer, academics were unsure what was being asked of them. The view was that they should be doing teaching and research, so why go out into the community?

“Today you’ll find it very hard to identify one academic who would say such a thing. It’s like finding somebody who supported apartheid in South Africa. You can’t find them anymore. So engagement has really taken quite strong root.”

“I think that given the role universities play in generating new knowledge, new products and new ideas, it makes common sense to seek out civic engagement and social responsibility.

“In South Africa, civic engagement is made even more important by the distance that continues to exist between communities and institutions,” said Pandor.

“A well-designed set of community engagement programmes can, I believe, ensure that young people do not become disengaged, divorced from society and community. Entrenching community engagement is for me a way of building a strong and dynamic link between graduates and communities through society.”

Frequently, Pandor continued, people developing community initiatives saw this as part of the three commitments higher education should act on – research, teaching and engagement.

This might be a “somewhat inadequate understanding of the value and purpose of community engagement”. Engagement activities were not service or NGO-type programmes.

They should be designed to develop a new ethos among graduates – "an appreciation of the inextricable link between human development and intellectual rigour.

“If we do not see the training that we receive as part of training us for development, then I think we’re going awry in higher education.”

South Africa needed the world’s expertise, said Pandor.

“Our institutions face the challenge of entrenching a new rights-based culture, a critical yet knowledge-based attitude towards policy and development, and a commitment to service as part of building a more inclusive and fair society that can successfully overcome our deep divisions.”

The network

Pandor said she was heartened by the serious concept of community engagement that was being developed through the Talloires Network, and by the fact that university leaders and engagement experts from around the world had dedicated several days to debating the topic.

“This indicates that engagement is now a very serious activity within the academic community,” the minister added. “Indeed, the creation of a network focused on social responsibility is a signal example of commitment to sustaining the role higher education can play in developing societies throughout the world.

“I’m sure you’ve not reached everyone in our universities as yet and perhaps we as policy-makers need to work with you much more closely to see how we can support your efforts.”

One way to pursue the goal of an inclusive society was by strengthening the voluntary social groups of civil society as well as trade unions, professional associations and even political parties – some of which needed a great deal of help.

Universities should look at whether they could work more closely with civil society groups: “Can we influence how they conduct programmes; can we draw them in a range of ways into a network such as this one?”

Building up civil society and stronger forms of developmental relationships, said Pandor, could also “help us to more effectively balance the power of the state”.