Community-university engagement in a time of COVID-19

Can a virus do more quickly what humans have been slow to accomplish? One of the narratives emerging from the interaction of COVID-19 with higher education is the collapse of the boundaries between town and gown.

With so many students, academics and staff working from home, there is no longer a physical separation between community and higher education.

Community-university engagement is moving ahead at an accelerated pace, not as an academic fashion, but because bringing together all manners of knowledge from community wisdom to epidemiology is a matter of our very survival. COVID-19, it could be said, is advancing a new architecture of knowledge.

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.

Since the middle of March, all colleges and universities have been shut down in countries around the world. The coronavirus has affected every part of the world and every sector of society.

Universities everywhere have responded to COVID-19 in creative and remarkable ways. In some parts of the world where COVID has been more contained, universities have reopened to face-to-face teaching. But, in the majority of countries, universities have mobilised a vast array of digital platforms to provide ongoing teaching to their students over internet-based ‘classrooms’.

The results of a recent Association of Commonwealth Universities digital engagement survey highlight the digital divide and its impact on universities’ current capacity to deliver teaching and research.

The findings show clear disparities in terms of internet access: while 83% of respondents from high-income countries had access to broadband, this figure was only 19% for respondents from low-income countries.

Despite being more likely to experience challenges when working remotely – including data costs, internet speed and internet reliability – colleagues in lower-income countries were also less likely to receive institutional support through contributions to data costs and devices.

Examining science’s place in society

The disruption of ’normal’ life caused by COVID-19 is transforming science’s place in society, even its standard practices. For example, researchers are launching partnerships with associations to advance their work, and their research networks are offering multiple webinars to all internet users instead of in-person seminars for peers in ‘closed’ research centres.

Citizen science movements are also taking on a more influential role, as demonstrated by Just One Giant Lab, which brings scientists and non-scientists together “to develop innovations to adapt to the COVID-19 epidemic [detection tests, syringe pumps, etc],” all at a lower cost.

Fablabs and other makerspaces are imagining new ways to produce masks, syringes and prototype respirators, while non-governmental organisations and scientists are bringing society into the fold by launching community-based, participatory research projects to fight inequalities.

New learning forms of community engagement

The breaking down of boundaries between formal and academic science illustrated in the previous paragraph is just one of the new forms of openness for knowledge-sharing evident from the pedagogical impact of the coronavirus.

We have also learned that survival and resilience in many parts of the world have occurred because local knowledge and wisdom have been brought to bear on the pandemic. In the face of a virus with no cure, the only way forward has been the combining of local knowledge, family practices and everyday wisdom with science.

Importantly, attention to the accumulation of local knowledge has meant more respect for mother-tongue languages, indigenous or traditional knowledge and cultures in which such knowledge is embedded.

Another lesson being learned from COVID-19 is that solutions are not bound by specific disciplines. Universities historically have grown comfortable with dividing knowledge into specific discourses or disciplines from which they fight for resources within academic institutions.

But is the pandemic simply a matter of epidemiology? Or has the impact of our teacher, COVID-19, revealed that survival is also a question of gender, of attention to issues of race and discrimination, of dramatic levels of inequality in income, land, food, digital access and more?

And, further, our contemporary experiences in engaged, community-driven scholarship have challenged our understanding of knowledge cultures, including the ideas of impact, usefulness and speed.

A typical academic study can be relatively relaxed if results and publication take three to six years to get to the public in some form. COVID-19 tells us that engaged scholarship needs to bring benefits to us all as soon as possible. And we have been encouraged to drop our dependence solely on academic journals and conferences as the spaces to get findings out.

Community-based participatory research is now moving at previously unheard-of speeds and is finding its way directly to the community, shortcutting the knowledge supply chain by years or even decades.

Planning for the future

So where should we go from here? Here are some suggestions. We need to:

• Redesign the curriculum of current courses to introduce a component of field study to monitor the current situation in nearby communities and neighbourhoods.

• Engage with local administrations and community organisations to identify poor and vulnerable families and people who have not been able to access various government benefits and share the information with relevant agencies.

• Undertake widespread multi- or trans-disciplinary studies on public health practices and situations in such communities (both rural and urban) in partnership with local communities, including with regard to the competencies and skills of frontline workers and community leaders and come up with innovative solutions.

• Participate actively to support frontline health and sanitation workers in spreading awareness and messages about behaviour change.

• Review domain knowledge systems in light of the pandemic’s long-term message for changes in the architecture of knowledge, recognising an ecology of epistemologies.

COVID-19 has underlined the importance of community-university engagement and now is the time to build on what we have learned from the experience of the pandemic.

Budd L Hall and Rajesh Tandon are co-chairs of the UNESCO Chair in Community Based Research and Social Responsibility in Higher Education.