Transforming higher education through community engagement

‘Community-university engagement’, one of the most talked about phenomena in global higher education circles today, has assumed profound importance amid the many challenges faced by the world today.

Closely following international developments in this regard, Indian policy-makers have fallen in line with the ‘engagement agenda’. As a result of continuous lobbying by the Society for Participatory Research in Asia, or PRIA, among others, and a series of consultations at sub-committee meetings arranged by the government, the University Grants Commission, or UGC, launched a scheme to foster community engagement within the nation’s universities last October.

Under the scheme, the UGC provides for the establishment of a Centre for Fostering Social Responsibility and Community Engagement, or CFSRCE, in select eligible universities. The main objectives include promoting community-university partnerships to develop knowledge for improving the lives of the people and encouraging ‘participatory research’, working with community-based organisations in planning and execution of projects.

The scheme seeks to propagate the integration of service, service-learning and experiential learning into curricular and co-curricular programmes. It also aims to create neighbourhood networks of education institutions and provide policy suggestions and technical assistance to help foster community engagement and social responsibility in higher education.

All central universities, centrally-funded deemed-to-be universities, and state universities receiving development assistance from the UGC and accredited by the National Assessment and Accreditation Council will be considered for UGC assistance to set up a centre.

The overall ceiling for financial assistance is US$500,000, which would be disbursed under different titles, such as start-up costs, staff costs, yearly operational costs, and so on.

The scheme focuses on certain key essentials of ‘engagement’: It encourages universities to develop proposals that incorporate a variety of engagement options, ranging from joint research with communities to promoting knowledge mobilisation and dissemination.

This includes linking learning with the framework on community engagement, along with devising new curricula and courses, encouraging practitioners to step into the academic arena, and providing adequate support to social innovation initiatives or projects undertaken by students.

The scheme also provides for rewarding innovative practices taken up by universities and individuals. Such a focus on the ‘diverse’ areas of engagement is an attempt by the lawmakers to accrue due relevance to the one of the biggest responsibilities of higher education institutions – meeting their social responsibility.

Social problems

Growing concern regarding the importance of the contribution that higher education institutions make to society has aroused a national debate about their relevance and credibility amid escalating social problems.

This concern is leading to significant developments at the national policy level, which provides for meaningful engagement of the institutions with the community or society around them.

In line with this, another recent development has been the creation of national university rankings, an initiative by the Ministry of Human Resource Development which is due to report in March.

This set of rankings is unique in that it includes the social contribution of universities as an equally important criterion in deciding institutional ranking – equal in status to other traditional factors such as research focus, teaching and publications.

So India has been slowly but surely catching up with the engagement agenda, with a growing number of universities investing in projects with a meaningful social contribution to society. This trend is highlighted by the large number of universities keen to submit proposals to the UGC and by other responses to the new centre scheme.

A recent day-long brainstorming session at PRIA deliberated how community engagement could transform universities into engines for democratic development. Twelve universities participated in the session to explore the potential of the UGC scheme and they explored various questions.

These included whether community engagement was different from traditional ‘outreach’ activities of universities and, if so, what that meant in practice; what it meant if it was not about taking the ‘adoption of a village or slum’ approach, and whether it was about more than one additional centre with physical infrastructure and staff.

A virtual catalytic centre

Several interesting findings emerged from the brainstorming. First was the idea that the centre could form a basis for bringing universities ‘back into society’ because most have become marginalised in public discourse on national development.

Second, participants asked whether community engagement could provide students with an opportunity to learn citizenship in practice. Third, it was considered whether university teaching, pedagogy and curriculum could become truly emancipatory if engagement was ‘embedded’ in the very processes of teaching and learning.

Fourth, it was argued that the centre could encompass all university faculties and institutes by promoting community engagement institution-wide and remain a ‘virtual’ catalytic centre. In that sense, the centre would not do fieldwork or teaching of new courses; it would facilitate ‘doing’ through existing faculties and departments.

Fifth, it was argued that the practice of participatory research methodology, when mainstreamed in the university, could create the ‘ethos for learning from the community’ and co-construction of knowledge. In turn, this could prepare students and faculty to be good ‘listeners’ to communities and their realities.

The new UGC scheme is a great opportunity for exploring the transformation of universities in ways that could make an impact not only on communities, but also on the universities themselves. Champions of community engagement in universities can play meaningful roles in the realisation of such potential if the new UGC scheme is deployed strategically.

Dr Rajesh Tandon is an internationally acclaimed leader and practitioner of participatory research and development. He founded the Society for Participatory Research in Asia, or PRIA, a voluntary organisation providing support to grassroots initiatives in South Asia, and has been its chief functionary since 1982. Wafa Singh is programme officer for PRIA.