A global solidarity network realising societal change
“Social outreach in higher education is crucial and can be achieved through enhanced cooperation with civil society and communities by reinforcing the public responsibility of universities in a knowledge society … This work gives me a deep sense of what I do, as a teacher, as a researcher and as a citizen.” – Dr Andrea Vargiu, director, FOIST Laboratory, University of Sassari, Italy.
“Society does not only view us as a temple of learning; there is also a certain amount of hope which society has in us. Keeping this in mind, we should ensure that whatever we do has a positive and visible impact on society … Unless academia makes efforts to remain relevant to society in contemporary times, it faces the risk of perishing in the long run.” – Professor SK Pandey, former vice-chancellor, Pandit Ravishankar Shukla University, Raipur, India.
“We have scored some success in the faculty of agriculture where we are experimenting with a teaching and learning model which works with local farmers in the community as opposed to through the university farm-based teaching model … The Institute of Peace and Strategic Studies works in areas of post-conflict reconstruction, restoration and peacebuilding in the aftermath of conflict, and it is actively participating in community dialogue aimed at rebuilding a fractured community who have lost their cultural cohesion during the period of resurgence.” – Dr George Openjuru, vice-chancellor, Gulu University, Northern Uganda.
These are voices of passionate and visionary leaders of universities operating in locations and contexts far removed from the metropolitan hubs of countries generally listed on global rankings. What is distinctive about these four leaders? Nothing much?
They are passionate educationists who value higher education as a vehicle for societal transformation. They are committed to making learning opportunities for the young in their societies so they can become sensitive professionals and active citizens.
They practise teaching and research that is embedded in their regions and contexts. Their students gain insights into local realities while studying global curricula. They practise what they say and do not preach what they cannot practise themselves.
Transformation in action
What kinds of transformative impact are these educationalists’ universities making?
In eastern Surabaya in Indonesia, rapid urbanisation is disrupting rural families and their livelihoods. First-generation university students coming from such rural backgrounds are ‘encouraged’ to recognise that the knowledge and expertise they gain in university should not make them arrogant. They must continue to respect their roots and work to improve their own communities.
Backed by national policies favouring community university engagement, Dr A’la has steered the academic functions at his institution to be more engaged and in-sync with society at large.
In Sardinia, Italy, the University of Sassari has nearly 450 years of history. It was created and supported by the people and families from the local community. Its history and the wave of new immigrants in the region interact in ways that create challenges for societal development.
By creating practical partnerships with such low-income communities, the university is able to sensitise its students and scholars to understand and respond to such challenges proactively.
Both northern Uganda and central India have faced extended societal conflicts and violence, arising largely out of the imbalanced control and distribution of resources among different social-ethnic groups.
A young university in Gulu, northern Uganda, has made peace studies and community dialogue the centrepiece of its promotion of academic excellence. Students drawn from local communities are now able to study at post-secondary level and also actively contribute to peace-building, irrespective of their academic discipline.
In central India, in the state of Chhattisgarh, the aspirations of local tribal (indigenous) communities are driving their youth to participate in higher education.
However, the university curriculum and pedagogy has been ‘imposed’ from a standardised national template. But through the leadership of one vice-chancellor, a platform for inclusive teaching and respectful research with local communities has been created. The local indigenous language is not rejected by the university and local knowledge systems are being integrated into teaching and research.
Knowledge for change
While working locally, each of these universities, their leadership teams and internal champions are now part of a global consortium of Knowledge for Change (K4C), being anchored by the UNESCO Chair in Community Based Research and Social Responsibility in Higher Education. By sharing their experiences and constraints with like-minded others from around the world, these transformative leaders reiterate their commitment and vision.
A global solidarity network is thus evolving among these university leaders. They are not only learning from each other; they are also standing together to ‘resist’ the growing pressures towards the homogenisation of higher education and subjugation to a global ranking system that may alienate them from their local contexts.
There are many other examples of such transformative leadership in diverse contexts around the world where teaching and research in universities is beginning to have an impact on local societies. Several of them are beginning to demonstrate a practical commitment towards the realisation of the Sustainable Development Goals.
The vast majority of them continue to innovate away from the neon lights of metropolitan capitals and academic centres. It may well be their unique strength.
Dr Rajesh Tandon is UNESCO Chair (along with Dr Budd Hall) in Community Based Research and Social Responsibility in Higher Education. Dr Tandon is founder-president of the Society for Participatory Research in Asia (PRIA), New Delhi.
Love this quote: "They are not only learning from each other; they are also standing together to ‘resist’ the growing pressures towards the homogenisation of higher education and subjugation to a global ranking system that may alienate them from their local contexts." I had the pleasure of being trained in community-based participatory research by Dr Rajesh Tandon and was so impressed by his knowledge, facilitation abilities and most of all his commitment to social justice.
Sebastian Silva on the University World News Facebook page