Latin American universities pioneer social engagement

There are many ways in which universities can interact with the world around them: knowledge transfer, continuing education and social engagement.

All universities around the world are currently engaged in these multifaceted activities, but Latin American universities stand out for the way they have prioritised social engagement, converting themselves into civic universities with a highly developed sense of place, that is, they recognise the extent to which they can help the local community and how location is essential to the unique identity of every university.

This article is part of a series on Transformative Leadership published by University World News in partnership with Mastercard Foundation. University World News is solely responsible for the editorial content.

It could be said that social engagement has been incorporated into Latin American universities’ missions, and it is also an important element of their teaching and research agendas. Hence, social engagement as a means of ‘university extension’ is – and has been for many years – a priority in Latin American universities, something that should inspire other regions of the world.

Bottom-up and top-down approaches

Social engagement in Latin American universities includes a great diversity of themes and original solutions. These activities cover two separate areas.

The first is ‘extension and cultural diffusion’: Universities actively open their doors to society at large in the fields of culture and leisure, such as the media, museums, symphony orchestras, dance and music groups, sports, etc.

The second is ‘community development’, which encompasses several activities relating to local development and free services for disadvantaged groups; voluntary work by university students; and the promotion of access to education. These types of social engagement activities have generated numerous innovative partnerships with different actors: small businesses, NGOs, rural communities and socially and economically disadvantaged groups.

Social engagement activities in Latin American universities stem from a combination of bottom-up and top-down approaches:

  • • Universities’ awareness of their role within society (the bottom-up approach): Social engagement in Latin American universities has traditionally been part of the university mission and culture (dating back to the reformist groups in the so-called Cordoba Reform Movement of 1918).

  • • Regional and national priorities (top-down approach): Worrying socio-economic contexts and the fragility of civil organisations in many countries have, in recent years, triggered the approval of national and regional programmes to improve the quality of citizens’ lives.

The roots of these activities lie to a great extent in the failure of the welfare state in most countries in the region. Universities have taken over responsibilities that in other regions are mostly carried out by the state. In any case, the key point is that social engagement is a vital part of Latin American universities’ ethos.

Social benefits

From the viewpoint of regional actors, some positive effects of social engagement activities include an improvement in the community’s quality of life, the enhancement of communities’ human and social capital, the development of professional competencies, the preservation of cultures and traditions, and in general, social, economic, cultural and environmental benefits.

Looking at this issue from the perspective of Latin American universities, the beneficial impacts of social engagement activities are inextricably related to universities’ ability to help their community, the establishment of permanent connections with their citizens, the implementation of actions aimed at promoting the public good or, in the case of involved students, the development of competencies, such as team work, communication skills, critical reflection and leadership.

Examples of the top-down approach include the compulsory social service which all higher education students in Mexican universities have to do (students have to work for a few months on community service activities).

Another is the national programme of More and Better Jobs for Young People promoted in Argentina by the Ministry of Labour, Employment and Social Security, under which universities, in cooperation with municipalities, provide training and assistance to increase the employability of citizens from 18 to 24 years of age who have not completed primary or secondary education and are unemployed.

However, with regard to the bottom-up approach, Latin American universities are well aware of their social obligations. As with any kind of activity, the main factor for the success of social engagement activities is the link between supply and demand.

Universities make an analysis of their region’s demands (their cultural needs, educational inequalities, health problems, technology challenges, etc) and, at the same time, they ensure their staff and students have the qualifications needed to meet these challenges.

There are hundreds of examples that illustrate different types of university-community interaction. They include the ‘University Homes’ programme, which is implemented by Universidad Veracruzana in Mexico and aims to involve students in community work in poor municipalities.

So far, more than 3,500 university students from 35 disciplines have carried out community service in municipalities located in indigenous, rural and suburban areas of the state of Veracruz.

Another example is Unicamp’s ‘Technological Incubator for Popular Cooperatives’ programme in Brazil, which aims to train, organise and support self-managed groups of citizens.

On a lesser scale, the faculty of odontology at the Autonomous University of Asunción in Paraguay has developed the ‘Recovering smiles’ programme with the aim of providing free dental services for people in rural communities and educating them about healthy habits that will prevent oral diseases. These examples are far from being isolated success stories.

Indeed, Latin American universities offer remarkable examples of transformative social action. They could provide a useful example for many universities in the developing world as well as in developed countries, who could use it as a tool for developing social responsibility.

José-Ginés Mora is currently visiting fellow in the Oxford Centre for Higher Education Policy Studies, United Kingdom, and María-José Vieira is professor of education at the University of León, Spain.