Community service and the problem of undefined obligations

Some African researchers and scholars posit that African public universities have three broad obligations: meeting local or regional needs, fulfilling national aspirations and satisfying international standards.

In an interview with the Association of African Universities in February this year, Dr Paul Effah, president of Ghana’s Radford University College, former registrar of Ghana University for Development Studies and executive secretary of the Ghana Tertiary Education Commission, corroborated that view.

Unfortunately, Dr Effah did not explain the nature and constituent elements of these obligations. Are they legal or moral obligations? Who monitors African universities to ensure that they fulfil these obligations? Do governments provide special funding to universities to enable them to fulfil these obligations?

Meeting local and regional needs

African universities are capable of performing many different roles. Nevertheless, the emergent view among researchers and practitioners of higher education is that the university performs three core missions, consisting of research, teaching and community service.

The community service role is often described as community or societal engagement. Whatever it is termed, it involves establishing productive relationships with sociocultural groups, institutions and business organisations in the local area or region where the university is located. In these relationships, the universities assist their communities to address the challenges they are facing through education, research and public service activities.

The community engagement role has huge benefits for faculty, students and society as a whole.

For universities, it provides applied learning opportunities for faculty members and students. For example, students may be able to engage in service learning by volunteering in their communities to explore ways in which theoretical perspectives learned in classrooms and laboratories can be applied to serve the needs of humanity. Community engagement also offers faculty members visible indications of the impact of their intellectual or scholarly work.

Furthermore, the community engagement role is a critical tool for decolonising African universities. Performed effectively, it could turn universities into real partners for African development; demythologise a sector perceived as being an ivory tower, colonial appendage, academically pompous, inward-looking, high-class, irrelevant institution.

It is through the community service role that local and regional populations could become more familiar with the significance of the university as a development partner. Consequently, such populations are most likely to stand in solidarity with the university in times of government funding cuts to the university or attempts to erode university autonomy and freedom.

Researchers have suggested areas where universities can initiate their community engagement projects. Below is a summary list of those areas:

• Economic contribution: Activities that contribute to employment opportunities for local or regional populations, such as university-industry cooperation, patent development, identifying natural resources and formulating technology for development as well as extraction and fabricating improved technologies for food processing and preservation;

• Social and infrastructure contribution: Information and technology transfer for R&D activities, scientific studies for improvement in road and bridge construction and improvement in health, communication and transportation services;

• Sociocultural contribution: Improvement in the quality of life by increasing the number of sociocultural activities, such as festivals and theatre and art performances;

• Human capital development contribution: Developing specific human capital that is in short supply for the locality or region and improving higher education participation rates for marginalised populations and women.

It should be noted that this is not an exhaustive list of how a university can engage with its local or regional populations.

That said, community engagement is not on the priority agenda of private or public universities in Africa. Some universities may claim that they are doing an excellent job in developing critical human capital for their locality and regions. Nonetheless, there is no verifiable evidence to show that any African university has ongoing plans for community engagement.

The fact is that the community engagement role of African universities is not enshrined in any law or public policy. It is, by and large, a voluntary or moral obligation.

Consequently, no African university can be held to account for how it has performed this role. And, even if an African university is involved in community engagement, albeit to a limited extent, it is sure to be one of the items of expenditure that will be cut in times of budget crunch.

Furthermore, despite its potential to contribute to the development of neighbouring communities, this community service role has received little recognition and attention compared to the other two missions of the university: research and teaching.

African researchers argue that apart from a lack of adequate financial resources for community engagement, the narrow interpretation of community engagement by faculty members and administrators as well as universities’ own policies are holding it back.

Fulfilling national aspirations

National aspirations may be seen as the collective dreams, goals, hopes and desires for something that is considered worthy of investment in time, money and effort.

Normally, the national aspirations of an African country are articulated through cultural, political and social groups in that country. But some national aspirations may receive more attention than others. Ultimately, what become national aspirations are products of a series of political struggles and negotiations among cultural groups, political factions and individuals.

Upon attaining political independence, African government leaders articulated national aspirations and tried to mobilise resources to attain those desires. These aspirations included poverty reduction, increased productivity, diversifying the economy from natural resource dependency and providing free primary education and subsidised health services.

As a result, the university as an institution was and is still regarded as pivotal in attaining these goals. So it is unsurprising that until recently the heads of most African countries were also chancellors of their universities.

Accordingly, the aspirations of African nation states are often embodied in the mandates of their public universities. As an illustration, Ghana’s University of Energy and Natural Resources was established in 2012 with a mandate to provide research and scholarship leadership in the energy and natural resources sector in Ghana.

Normally, the central ideas in public universities’ mandates are used to construct the vision and mission of the university. Despite the specific contents of mandates and mission statements, one has to think about what African universities can do, given their financial limitations.

Consequently, there are three principal areas that African universities could focus their efforts on in order to fulfil the national aspirations of the countries in which they are located. These perspectives are similar to those communicated in my 2019 article on the development university.

One of the areas in which African universities could concentrate their attention is assessing and identifying societal needs. This would culminate in a series of reports which would also focus on the interrelationship between those needs and their prioritisation in terms of public financial constraints.

African universities could use the needs assessment and identification reports to design their curricula and programmes. The reports should also be shared with governments and other institutions.

Another area to consider is how universities conduct relevant research and engage in scholarly analysis of societal problems. This set of activities would guide governments in policy formulation and implementation. Relevant research includes studies based on the African context rather than those that extrapolate data from Euro-America and apply it to the African context.

Finally, African universities can produce graduates equipped with the relevant skills, knowledge and dispositions for national development according to the unique situation and sociocultural environment of the countries where they reside.

If graduates cannot function effectively in the different African countries where the universities exist, it can be stated that their skills are irrelevant to those countries.

Satisfying international standards

Two views dominate discourses about universities’ international standards. One of these views is that international standards consist of quality assurance – a set of principles, norms, values and procedures by which an institution assures that it provides a conducive learning, research and teaching environment, an acceptable model of student services and an appropriate curriculum, assessment modalities and admission requirements.

Nonetheless, the Council for Higher Education Accreditation’s International Quality Group (CIQG) has admitted that it cannot set any international quality assurance standards without consensus and unanimity and without taking into consideration the unique circumstances of universities in different countries. Thus, any international quality assurance standards the CIQG may set in future would be voluntary, not mandatory.

The other view of international standards is that they reflect the characteristics of universities in the Global North that are considered the norm for African countries to emulate.

This view is not often expressed in a blatant way, but the former president of Tanzania, the late Julius Nyerere, made the following reflective statement that indicates the existence of this view: “There are two possible dangers facing a university in a developing nation: the danger of blindly adoring mythical international standards which may cast a shadow on national development objectives and the danger of forcing our university to look inward and isolate itself from the world.”

I agree with Julius Nyerere that there is no such thing as international standards: there is only a similarity with the university standards found in the Global North such as Europe, Australia and North America.

The practice of African universities imitating universities in the Global North is dangerous in that it stifles their creativity and innovation. It also makes them a laughing stock in the comity of international higher education institutions. And it utterly disregards the societies they serve.

Rather, I am in favour of adapting those standards. This requires a process of tweaking, modifying, critical analysis and reflection to ensure that whatever is borrowed from universities elsewhere fits the sociocultural conditions in the society that the university serves.

Do African policy-makers, researchers and scholars want African public universities to fulfil those three obligations? If they do, they need to enshrine in law and policy what they consider to be the working definitions of those obligations and set aside appropriate funding. That way, we can monitor and evaluate how African universities fulfil those obligations.

Dr Eric Fredua-Kwarteng is an educator and policy analyst in Canada.