The year begins with renewed focus on community engagement

The role of higher education institutions in achieving the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) has been recognised by the Indian government, with guidelines issued by the University Grants Commission in late December that address specific actions.

The National Educational Policy (NEP) 2020 stresses the importance of an alignment between the education system and the SDGs.

The global education development agenda reflected in Goal 4 (SDG 4) seeks to “ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all” by 2030. Such a lofty goal requires the entire education system to be reconfigured to support and foster learning so that all of the critical targets and goals of the 2030 agenda can be achieved.

The NEP 2020 emphasises community engagement and states that it is the social responsibility of higher education institutions (HEIs). Through community engagement programmes institutions can help teachers and students apply their theoretical knowledge of courses to field realities and thereby improve the quality of their academic programmes and research activities.

The NEP 2020 states that, as part of a holistic and multidisciplinary education, HEIs’ flexible and innovative curricula should include credit-based courses and projects in the areas of community engagement and service, environmental education and value-based education.

Unnat Bharat Abhiyan

The background to the current focus on community engagement dates from 2014. In November 2014, the Ministry of Human Resource Development (now renamed Ministry of Education) launched Unnat Bharat Abhiyan or UBA, a flagship government programme as a way of connecting HEIs with their local communities to address the development challenges of rural India through appropriate technological inventions.

UBA 1.0 or UBA Phase-1 involved an invitation to universities to be part of the flagship programme. UBA 2.0 was launched on 25 April 2018 and required all participating higher education institutions to adopt at least five villages to work with.

The primary responsibility of UBA cells in higher education institutions is to develop links with selective rural clusters, involve them in the planning process and promote the requisite interventions to boost indigenous and sustainable rural development. At present more than 3,200 HEIs in the country have joined UBA.

Role of the University Grants Commission

The University Grants Commission (UGC) set up a subject expert group on educational institutions’ social responsibility in 2018 under UBA, which delivered a report on “Fostering Social Responsibility and Community Engagement in HEIs in India”. Through this process, the UGC:

(1) Emphasised the importance of introducing socially relevant courses that will make all students understand India’s rural society and the government’s rural development schemes and contribute to their improvement through workshops and dialogues at various forums;

(2) Established seven Regional Centres for Capacity Building of Faculty Members as Master Trainers for Community-Based Participatory Research. The Gandhigram Rural Institute in Tamil Nadu, of which I am regional coordinator, is one of the regional centres;

(3) Issued guidelines for introducing a two-credit course on Fostering Social Responsibility and Community Engagement in HEIs. The goals of fostering social responsibility and community engagement in institutions are:

• Improving the quality of teaching and research in HEIs, by bridging the gap between theory and practice through community engagement;

• Promoting deeper interactions between HEIs and local communities for the identification and resolution of real-life problems faced by local communities in a spirit of mutual benefit;

• Facilitating partnerships between local communities and HEIs so that students and teachers can learn from local knowledge and wisdom;

• Helping HEIs to engage with local communities to make their curricula, courses and teaching more relevant to the achievement of national development goals;

• Inculcating values of public service and active citizenship among students and youth, which can also nurture and harness young people’s natural idealism;

• Undertaking research projects in partnership with the local community through community-based research methods.

Teaching community engagement and social responsibility

To fulfil the avowed objectives of NEP 2020, the UGC issued guidelines on 29 December on “Fostering Social Responsibility Community Engagement in HEIs”. These provide a framework which highlights:

• The importance of integrating HEI programmes and SDGs;

• The course curriculum for introducing credit courses on community engagement and social responsibility;

• Suggestions for modifying existing courses and curricula to align with the national framework;

• New courses for promoting community engagement and social responsibility; and

• Ways to undertake research in partnership with the local community.

As per the guidelines, HEIs can choose any combination of the following forms of community engagement:

• Linking learning with community service;

• Linking research with community knowledge;

• Knowledge sharing and knowledge mobilisation;

• Devising new curricula and courses;

• Including practitioners as teachers;

• Social innovation devised by students.

The UGC recommended a detailed curriculum for a new course on community engagement. The title of the course is “Community Engagement and Social Responsibility” and carries two credits, is 30 hours in duration and at least half of it should be based in the field. Divided into four modules, field immersion is part of each unit of the course.

It is recommended that this course be taken by all undergraduate and postgraduate students so that their appreciation of rural field realities is holistic, respectful and inspiring. This course has been designed with specific objectives and learning outcomes.

Students taking the course will be assessed through their knowledge of e-content and reflections on field visits noted in a field diary. Participation in field visits accounts for 30% of their marks; group field projects account for 40% of their marks; and the presentation of field project findings to the community institution accounts for the last 30%.

Themes for postgraduate field-based research and field-based activities for undergraduate and postgraduate students are also outlined in the guidelines.

The expected role of HEIs

Under NEP 2020, it is expected that all higher education institutions should introduce credit courses on community engagement and social responsibility to achieve India’s socio-economic development targets.

This approach is expected to strengthen the academic and research programmes of HEIs and will require specific policy level changes, such as:

• The introduction of a standardised course curriculum structure for community engagement and social responsibility with uniform credit distribution;

• The ability to make links between core courses and the new community engagement course in order to widen skills;

• Enhanced engagement with local communities to develop innovative solutions to social problems;

• Collaborative and interactive learning;

• An inbuilt mechanism for regular review of the curriculum;

• A focus on the development of the advanced knowledge and specific skills required for the course; and

• Ways to ensure that faculty and students’ competencies in this area are kept up to date.

A new language for community engagement

The general understanding is that community engagement has both immediate and long-term relevance.

The guidelines address two sides of the same coin: developing the capacity of higher education institutions and addressing the issues facing local communities. These two are intertwined. However, the interplay between the two poses new challenges as well as opportunities for HEIs.

Community engagement has the potential to positively transform the academic and research programmes of higher education institutions and the learning process of students.

But HEIs must overcome the challenges they face when it comes to defining, planning and assessing their engagement activities. Curricular-based engagement experiences serve as avenues for interaction in which students, faculty and local communities work together to address location-specific issues and find positive outcomes.

Here the role of UGC Regional Centres for Capacity Building of Faculty Members as Master Trainers for Community-Based Participatory Research has become crucial. The implementation strategy that is outlined by the UGC guidelines explicitly mentions the role of the regional centres.

The emphasis on community engagement will also be an important factor in HEIs’ institutional ranking and in the professional evaluation of teachers, researchers and administrators.

The SDGs have become a new language that allows all stakeholders of HEIs to work towards shared and measurable goals. It is hoped that, as stated in NEP 2020, the purpose of the education system – “to develop a good human being capable of rational thought and action, possessing compassion and empathy, courage and resilience, scientific temper and creative imagination, with sound ethical moorings and values – will be achieved.

The year 2023 therefore begins with a renewed focus on the importance of the third dimension of higher education institutions: community engagement.

Professor K Ravichandran is regional coordinator of Unnat Bharat Abhiyan Regional Coordinating Institute, the Gandhigram Rural Institute, Gandhigram, Tamil Nadu, India.