The vital role of civic engagement for universities

Universities play a key role in producing and disseminating knowledge through their research and teaching. Their civic role is equally important, and many universities have been very active in this area. Has COVID-19 put the brakes on their civic engagement?

The outbreak has constituted a critical moment for higher education. In the most affected countries, universities’ first priorities were to transfer teaching to online platforms and close most laboratories, except those that refocused their activities on COVID-19 research. Then they focused on how to maintain their civic engagement.

Universities mobilise

Typically, civic engagement is local. It usually includes service-learning, community-based participatory research, volunteer projects, initiatives aimed at economic and social development and community access to cultural events and sports facilities. These activities are difficult to pursue when students are gone from their campuses and local communities are in lockdown.

Nevertheless, universities have mobilised quickly as the need to act in the face of the crisis became pressing. They have needed to support and inform their own communities – whether staff, students or alumni – as well as the wider public. Those universities that are focused on local engagement have been able to continue their general support, for instance, by pivoting to online and phone support to the community.

Students are shopping for or reaching out to the elderly, for example, or serving as tutors to disadvantaged school children. Armies of students in health-related fields are volunteering in hospitals and other public places as needed. Engineering students are creating face shields for first responders and health workers. Chemistry students are producing sanitisers and the chemical agents that hospitals need.

Academic staff have also sprung into action. University labs are producing coronavirus test kits. Medical faculties are donating their ventilators, facemasks and other personal safety equipment. Scientists are writing articles and are ever present in the media to explain in accessible terms what this crisis is about, how the public should respond and what to expect in the future.

The Conversation, a media outlet that publishes articles by academics on issues of interest to the wider public, has been receiving offers to write articles at almost four times the rate prior to COVID-19. Its articles are republished worldwide by the general press, thus reaching an even wider public.

Although this media blitz is not stopping conspiracy theories and fake news from flourishing, the crisis has also presented a unique opportunity to demonstrate the importance of scientific and rational thought, as well as the merits of evidence-based policy.

Learning about science

Every medical and scientific debate in the media is a teaching moment about the scientific method. The public is now an engaged and interested onlooker, in real time, practically on a daily basis, of the road towards scientific discovery, and learning the importance of the principle of falsifiability, the need to question and verify hypotheses and to confirm results.

As the recurring polls show, the majority of the European public has tended to side with the scientists rather than the promoters of conspiracy theories. The public has rallied around epidemiologists, as in Greece, for instance, when they provided evidence for the decisions taken by governments. The public has also rallied around its healthcare workers who, we should remember, are mostly university-trained.

Furthermore, as the world is retreating behind walls and borders, and policy-making is becoming more national, even nationalistic and populist, universities and their scientists are modelling appropriate attitudes and behaviours by collaborating and sharing their results in a timely fashion for the good of the public worldwide. This is yet another important way that universities are demonstrating their commitment to humanistic values and their civic duties.

Good citizenship

This health crisis will hold many lessons that are difficult to anticipate right now. Whatever they are, it will be important, when this pandemic subsides, that its lessons are remembered.

More immediately perhaps, the health crisis is already creating economic hardship and has revealed great economic and social disparities and inequalities in many countries and across European countries. It will be essential for universities to contribute and address the socio-economic issues resulting from this crisis and to do it on both a world and European scale and, most importantly, locally, in their own backyards.

What better way than civic engagement, folded into research and teaching activities, to ensure that students develop into good citizens and for universities and their staff to exercise their social responsibility?

Looking to the post-coronavirus future, universities will have to reassess how to organise work both on campus and remotely; reopen their research labs; reconsider their approach to hybrid and online teaching, their student support and their staff development; look at the balance and interactions between the sciences, the social sciences and humanities; and reset their priorities in a context in which civic engagement will become ever more pressing and urgent for Europe and for democratic societies worldwide.

Andrée Sursock is a senior adviser at the European University Association (EUA). This article was first published on the EUA's Expert Voices blog.