Civic engagement: A regional revival with a global lesson

We are currently witnessing a resurgence of interest in the different ways that higher education institutions can contribute to democratic development through stronger engagement with civil society.

In Latin America the ‘university extension’ movement dating back to the early 1900s is going through a revival that is contributing to the democratic mission of the university. It takes different forms and has different names – extension, engagement, linkages, social responsibility, etc – but they all share a common purpose, namely, to place the traditional teaching and research functions of the university within the overall context of the society in which it operates.

The experience of Latin America needs to be part of the global conversation around the democratic mission of the university and the way it may best engage with civil society. It is vital that the global debate on a way forward for the democratic and civic engagement missions should learn from the Latin American and Caribbean debates and these, in turn, can learn from the diverse experiences and lessons in other regions.

There are, of course, national and regional particularities in the way in which universities engage with society, a diversity that reflects particular historical paths. There is also an overarching NorthSouth divide and we cannot expect those with far less resources and connections to ‘deliver’ on civic engagement in the same way.

Social commitment

The current horizon of university extension and civic engagement in Latin America shows a great deal of vitality and varieties.

Social commitment can be seen as an identifying mark of higher education in the region. This is expressed in a variety of ways, not least through ‘service learning’ (dubbed ‘solidarity service learning’ in the region), different forms of community engaged research such as participatory action research (PAR) and various outreach and access programmes in the community.

Extension or engagement activity is not always integrated into the core mission of the university but, more recently, there have been moves to overcome the semi-detached nature of the ‘third mission’ by integrating it more closely into the teaching-learning and research elements of strategy.

The situation regarding university extension and engagement in Latin America is quite mixed. In the big urban centres, the national universities have returned to an institutionally sanctioned civic engagement strategy with varying degrees of legitimacy and embeddedness. Outside of the capital cities there is a struggle to balance the social engagement mission with the new demands to provide disciplinary-based knowledge input to business.

However, the COVID19 crisis did create a better understanding, in dramatic circumstances, of the need to deepen the university’s engagement with its surrounding communities and society more broadly. The current challenge is to embed engagement in the teaching and research missions through new pedagogical methodologies and engaged research.

Increasingly, we are finding cases where the experiential, as against abstract, knowledge of communities (be they geographical or social) is valued in advanced learning and where research practices move out of the laboratory to engage with communities in setting the research agenda and in the co-creation of knowledge.

Re-evaluation of civic engagement

In Latin America, as elsewhere, the main challenge posed is the lack of a clear perspective on the best way to move forward. The discourse of ‘social responsibility’ that was prevalent in the 1990s led to a radical depoliticisation of the debate. With illusions that globalisation would create a ‘flat’ world where social exclusions, inequalities and oppressions were a thing of the past, the solutions offered were ‘soft’ ones at best.

The university was seen as a business, and students were seen as its consumers. At best, extension was conceived as simply a means to disseminate the knowledge and technology vested in the university, although often the activity itself began to wane.

From 2000 onwards, as part of a continentwide period of political mobilisation and transformation, this began to change and the debates of the 1960s (not least the Paulo Freire heritage) were revived, albeit in a new context.

The COVID19 crisis, and its aftermath, is prompting a reevaluation of how civic engagement is practised across Latin America. The health crisis highlighted the dramatic levels of socio-economic inequality and the direct life and death impacts this could have.

University social responsibility had simply mirrored the mainstream corporate social responsibility discourse. We now see a more critical approach emerging as the COVID19 crisis has laid bare that we do not live in a ‘flat world’ where we are all just consumers.

The question of democratic citizenship comes to the fore again. We also see the reemergence of a holistic territorial approach to the role of the university, with democratic development at its core, in the encouragement of popular cooperative enterprises, for example. There is also clear evidence that civic engagement is moving from a rhetorical addon to become an integral part of both the teaching and research functions of the university.

We will continue to monitor how such trends evolve in the region, but it is vital that we bring the experiences of Latin America and the Caribbean into the global debate on how higher education might better promote democracy and civic engagement.

Ronaldo Munck was the first head of civic engagement at Dublin City University in Ireland where he drove the social mission alongside teaching and research, and he was the founding chair of Campus Engage, the national university platform for civic engagement in Ireland. He has collaborated with the Council of Europe in recent years and is now involved in setting up a network of civically engaged universities in Latin America. He is co-editor with Yadira Pinilla, Rita Hodges and Catherine Bartch of Higher Education in Latin America and the Caribbean: Civic engagement and the democratic mission, based on an online conference held in February 2022 which is available open access here.