Forging the future of university engagement – Talloires

Educating economically successful global citizens, expanding access to higher education, measuring the impacts of work with communities, influencing university rankings, incentives for engaged academics and a greater role for students. These were major topics for debate and new goals as university leaders from across the world set the stage for future university engagement at the Talloires Network Leaders Conference, or TNLC 2014.

The Call to Action agreed at the end of the conference describes areas of action around which there’s growing momentum in higher education.

“I’m confident that participants are really going to move the needle on these challenges and opportunities in the next couple of years,” said Robert M Hollister, executive director of the Talloires Network and 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.

“For instance, bringing together the top-down leadership of vice-chancellors and the bottom-up leadership of students to develop more effective and responsive universities, institutions that are dramatically more effective engines of social and economic development.”

The overall goal, Hollister told University World News was to “reinforce university leaders from around the globe who're moving their institutions beyond the ivory tower – to chart future directions and to build support for them. I feel very good about what we accomplished together on these aims.”

The 2014 conference

TNLC 2014 was held from 2-4 December at the Spier Conference Centre near Stellenbosch, a town set in the winelands outside Cape Town in South Africa. University leaders shared experiences and plans, sought ways to support each other, and decided on priorities for collective action.

The conference was co-sponsored by the South African Higher Education Community Engagement Forum and co-hosted by the Cape Higher Education Consortium comprising the four universities in the Western Cape province – Cape Peninsula, Cape Town, Stellenbosch and the Western Cape.

The theme was “Live Engagement, Transform Lives”, and there were three overarching themes – perspectives from the global South, youth employment, and economic development – as well transcending themes including technology, political dimensions and public policy.

Perspectives from the global South was chosen, said communications coordinator for the Talloires Network secretariat Matias Ramos, because of a need for a more balanced global debate.

Rather than learning from the North, there was a growing view among university leaders of the Talloires Network that “a culture should be created that is more about shared learning, about participatory learning in this type of gathering”.

Jerome Slamat, chair of the local organising committee and senior director for community interaction at Stellenbosch University, said the Talloires Network and engagement activities in higher education had grown considerably since the last conference in Madrid in 2011.

“We’re meeting at a stage where the global university community engagement movement is maturing and there’s much more reflection and publication on it,” he said. There was more research into areas such as evaluation, and measuring success and impact, to explore.

Cheryl de la Rey, vice-chancellor of the University of Pretoria in South Africa – who became vice-chair of the Talloires Network steering committee during the conference – worried about the need for universities to constantly seek external sources of funding for community engagement work, with government subsidies dependent on other factors such as student enrolments and-or graduates and-or research outputs.

“I think we have an opportunity to develop a more informed conceptual and theoretical understanding about the role of universities in social development,” she told University World News ahead of TNLC 2014. “And that could assist us with the longstanding issue of how to fund community engagement in our universities.

“We must find ways in which we can really integrate community engagement into teaching and learning and research, as opposed to seeing it as a third mission.”

Social role of universities

In the opening session, the vice-chancellors of the four Western Cape host universities reflected on the fundamentally social role of universities and their mandate for engaging with the communities they serve.

Max Price, vice-chancellor of the University of Cape Town, highlighted challenges facing society such as climate change, the spread of infectious diseases such as Ebola and the lack of jobs for young people, and confirmed that universities can play their part in finding solutions.

He pointed out how universities are often pulled in opposite directions by the tensions between them; tensions between “economic growth for its own sake and the consequences such as inequality… between cheap and renewable energy”, for instance.

“Universities have a big role to play as they can systematically make themselves available for debate – we deliberately put ourselves there to steer the global debate on the great social issues of the day,” he told the assembled audience of 264 delegates from 41 countries.

But taking on this eminently social role is made more difficult by the way other imperatives push universities and their leaders in other directions. High up on the list is the need to build a university’s global reputation.

“League tables are something hanging over the heads of university leaders all of the time and the ranking systems will give no brownie points for civic engagement,” said Price.

Ensuring financial resources is another priority. Access, and providing ongoing support so that students from disadvantaged backgrounds do not just go to university but also succeed when they get there, is yet another.

Bringing an event such as Talloires to the global South – to an Africa on the rise – is highly significant, according to Leopoldt van Huyssteen, acting rector of Stellenbosch University, as the civic engagement debate will be enriched by different perspectives from the global South.

The audience was invited to pay tribute to the late Russel Botman, Stellenbosch’s transformational vice-chancellor until his sudden death last June.

Botman, said Van Huyssteen, “took the bold steps of aligning the core activities of the university with the international development agenda” such as poverty eradication and creating peace and security.

In a short video tribute to the late vice-chancellor, Botman himself showcased Stellenbosch University’s work with the community such as the iShack project providing small incremental improvements including solar power in a local township. He stated his conviction that “a better world can only be done when there is great science behind it”.

For Prins Nevhutalu, vice-chancellor of Cape Peninsula University of Technology, a fundamental question for the conference was what kind of graduates universities are producing. Universities “produce CEOs of companies, ministers and presidents, so how do we ensure that wherever they go they become agents of change?” he asked.

Growth of Talloires

The growth of the Talloires Network – from just 29 people from 21 universities at the founding meeting in Talloires, France, in 2005 to the 332 members from 72 countries today – says a lot about the growing importance of civic engagement, according to Janice Reid, the outgoing vice-chair of the Talloires Network steering committee.

“Size is not the be all and end all but Talloires has managed to create a niche where it is clear that universities are here to serve, to make a difference and to reduce inequality in this world,” she said.

She believes that another defining characteristic of civic engagement is the way that it transcends the divides of disciplines and departments, which means “each member of the community can contribute”.

Max Price finished his intervention by hoping the days of debate would allow universities to share best practices on how universities can reprioritise civic engagement when it is competing with other imperatives such as research.

This does not mean that the one should exclude the other, he said. It is more a matter of “how we can ensure that the incentives can be aligned so that instead of all these tensions, we can have all of our imperatives pulling in the same direction”.