Engagement: Universities should ‘get their hands dirty’
A number of universities in South Africa today are part of a broad movement of reimagining themselves as engaged institutions focused on finding ways to co-create a more sustainable society and improving the lives of its community members.
Engagement, or community engagement as it also called, was historically seen as the ‘Cinderella’ mandate of universities. But, nowadays, there are calls for engagement to be treated on an equal footing with and to be part of learning and teaching, as well as research and innovation. Engaged universities view themselves as an intrinsic part of broader society and are committed to the service of society.
They partner with a wide range of stakeholders, including communities, the government, industry, the private sector, non-governmental organisations, activist groups as well as South African and international institutions of higher learning. They embrace the principle of convergence, whereby stakeholders come together to find solutions to the serious challenges facing our country.
Universities do not have the answers to achieve these alone, but can certainly contribute to social change. Those that are not engaging at all levels of research, learning and teaching, and practise, will lose their social legitimacy and put their survivability at risk.
Engaged universities recognise this and all stakeholders come together in equalising partnerships to draw on the knowledge in communities and co-develop responses and answers to the difficult issues confronting us. This generates a collective sense of ownership of universities and actively answers the question that is increasingly being asked: ‘What are universities for?’
For example, South Africa’s high unemployment level is particularly problematic for the youth and graduating students. Several universities are now engaging with each other and with industry and funders in offering entrepreneurship programmes to students across disciplines, as well as in their communities. The success rate of start-ups developed from these programmes is monitored to ensure the programmes are working.
Another example is that of university engineers and development studies academics who are partnering with township community members in community-owned renewable energy solutions. Engineers are also partnering with communities in informal settlements to address the high incidence of devastating fires.
In the Eastern Cape province of South Africa, industrial engineer Bryan Moulang developed an affordable, non-pressurised, non-toxic, easy to use and maintain fire extinguisher called Fire Killa™.
He partnered with Nelson Mandela University’s (NMU) eNtsa engineering hub to pilot the programme, and is now working with the South African Department of Trade and Industry, the Eastern Cape Development Corporation, the SAB Foundation’s social innovation fund and NGOs to extend their reach to communities throughout Southern Africa, Brazil and India.
The ‘Noah approach’
University engagement across all faculties was the 2021 theme of Universities South Africa’s (USAf) national higher education conference. USAf represents all public universities in South Africa.
The keynote speaker was Dr Ira Harkavy, associate vice-president and founding director of the Barbara and Edward Netter Center for Community Partnerships at the University of Pennsylvania in the United States.
Referring to what he calls the ‘Noah approach’, Harkavy said universities should not receive prizes or grants for “predicting and describing when it will rain”; rather, there should be prizes for building arks and implementing change to address the issues associated with floods and droughts.
Drawing on this analogy, he explained that it is incumbent on universities to leverage partnerships as a means of dealing with the root cause of problems of society. “We need a global movement … This is not rocket science. It is harder than rocket science. We need to work together and work with communities.”
Several of the 26 public universities in South Africa have established executive portfolios for engagement, including on the level of deputy vice-chancellor. This is the case at Nelson Mandela University, based in Port Elizabeth, which also has about 250 engagement projects.
‘Hubs of convergence’
Many of these projects are channelled through what it calls ‘hubs of convergence’, managed through its engagement office.
Engagement activities include:
• Establishing food systems in partnership with community members, NGOs and the agri sector in the urban, township and rural areas, including vegetable gardens, hydroponics and aquaponics, all of which use less water than traditional agriculture, using situation-appropriate technology to measure soil content and moisture.
• Implementing health programmes in partnership with local and international universities, communities, tech companies, doctors, government departments and industry to improve health access, including the manufacturing of drugs in South Africa, apps for managing diseases like TB, cancer and HIV/Aids and working with traditional healers to stop deaths during initiations.
• Mobilising resources and engaging a wide range of stakeholders in fund-raising campaigns to support the ‘missing middle’ and students who are unable to pay fees or have a shortfall in their funding from the National Student Financial Aid Scheme, the government’s bursary scheme.
• Engagement with urban and rural schools to grow the pipeline of learners pursuing mathematics and science at university level as the numbers are declining and these are critical subjects for Industry 4.0 [Fourth Industrial Revolution] and Society 5.0.
• Working with communities and schools in advancing the e-readiness or ICT-based education for all government schools. Working with government to roll out broadband to all communities, including leveraging fibre-to-the home, 5G and satellite internet networks to connect dispersed, rural populations and schools.
• Partnering locally and internationally in the development of sustainable green fuels, solar battery storage technology, electric vehicles and solar charging stations for electric vehicles.
• Partnering with law enforcers to implement systems and knowledge to fight crime, including organised multi-crime, such as in the fisheries sector.
A shift in the discourse
A positive development in our country is that there has been a shift in the national discourse about the engaged university over the past two years. At certain South African universities engagement is now part of performance agreements, polices and promotion criteria for academics and professional staff.
To embed this across the entire university system requires a national framework for the public universities that can guide universities towards better engagement. It would also require of the government to reconfigure the ways in which the university subsidy regime can finance the work that universities do with regard to engagement.
In general, engagement is still one of the weaker mandates in terms of resourcing and focus. It should be funded by government within a clear framework. The framework would require guidelines, incentives and accountability for engagement work as part of the core purpose of a university. It would have to be seen as integral to the transformation work of the university and not as a ‘piecemeal’ response.
Directors of engagement at universities leading this shift need to put pressure on national government to fund engagement without reducing the funding for learning and teaching, and research and innovation. It would require a long overdue increase in the higher education budget. South Africa’s percentage of GDP allocation for higher education is still much lower than comparative countries and needs to be increased if the sector is to help address the development challenges.
At the same time, national and international agencies that are part of the local and global higher education system need to substantively increase their call for projects that especially target engagement and advance the social ‘embeddedness’ of universities.
For the most part, the calls currently favour research, and learning and teaching. Innovative and creative disruptions in the higher education system are required all round as working towards achieving the Sustainable Development Goals rests on what is happening in our communities.
Nelson Mandela University’s global Giving Campaign aims to raise ZAR30 million (US$1.6 million) to support four projects, based on empowerment and social redress. Funds raised from this multi-year campaign will support student hunger projects; student bursaries; a group of technical and vocational college graduates with a greenhouse and community food systems project; as well as empower communities to set up sustainable community kitchens. More information about support for the project is available on a Giving page.
Professor André Keet is the deputy vice-chancellor, engagement and transformation, at Nelson Mandela University, South Africa.