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International Community Engagement Conference

Every two years during Community Engagement week, the Community Engagement division hosts the International Community Engagement Conference, bringing together CE practitioners from across the globe. During this conference, the winner of the Vice Chancellor's Distinguished Award for Community Engagement presents a lecture on their work in the nexus of Research, Teaching and Learning and CE. 

Community Engagement (CE) is part of contemporary higher education lexicon because of its formalization as a core function of universities in democratic South Africa, other parts of Africa and some countries in the global South. However, the interaction between community-university-society has a much longer history than its current higher education function.  For example, on the one hand, during the apartheid era in South Africa, universities lacked democratic accountability and responsiveness to the needs of the majority of South Africans because there were no meaningful two-way and reciprocal engagement and partnerships between universities and communities (Bunting 1994) cited in (Saidi 2023: 5).

On the other hand, Vally (2023: 57) points out that in pursuing the objective of engagement, we do not have to assume a tabula rasa, as South Africa has a long history of student involvement-often supported by academics-in community struggle.  He further states that prior to 1994 and during the transition, this strong tradition of university academics and students working closely with civil society and grassroots structures continued.  Julius Nyerere’s Ujamaa programme in Tanzania in the 1960s is another early example of community-university-society interface in the African region.

The engagement and relationship between community-university-society in contemporary South Africa is significant and topical because of the developmental role mandated to universities as part of the national transformation agenda. Universities are required to demonstrate social responsibility and commitment to the common good through community engagement programmes.

While the conceptualization of higher education CE remains fluid, depending on the context and history of higher education institutions in South Africa, CE is often described as the process through which universities bring the capabilities of its academe and students to work collaboratively with community groups and organisations to achieve mutually agreed upon goals to build capacity, create just and sustainable outcomes, and improve the wellbeing of individuals, communities, and the university.

In higher education, community engagement is a collection of activities that includes service learning, engaged research, and volunteerism, and it aims to address specific social, economic, and political needs (Hall, 2010).

Saidi (2023) affirms that responsiveness through CE is regarded as central to programmes of transforming and decolonizing higher education towards an African philosophy of education centred on communalism and humanism (referred to as Ubuntu) in Africa. While CE has made some progress as a ‘third’ mission of universities in South Africa and some parts of Africa, Johnson (2020) affirms that universities are still grappling with understanding the essence of CE as a core mission of universities, its theory and praxis and importantly, the community-university-society relationship.

Much more work still needs to be done if CE is to meaningfully contribute to the transformation agenda in South Africa and the rest of Africa. Undoubtedly, getting to know the past and its influence on the present will serve to map the future possibilities of the mission of community engagement in higher education institutions in South Africa and the rest of Africa.

The Rhodes University Community Engagement (RUCE) division is one of the hubs of the UNESCO Knowledge for Change (K4C) Consortium, an international partnered training initiative of the UNESCO Chair in Community-Based Research and Social Responsibility in Higher Education, co-chaired by Prof Budd Hall of Victoria University (Canada) and Dr Rajesh Tandon of Participatory Research in Asia (PRIA), India. The K4C Consortium aims to develop research capacities for the co-creation of knowledge through collective action by community groups and academics working together in training hubs around the world on issues related to the UN Sustainable Development Goals. 

Currently, the K4C international network is composed of 23 training hubs, each of which represent a formal partnership between universities and civil society organisations in 14 countries. As a global training partnership between higher education institutions and civil society organisations, the K4C programme expands individual and institutional research training capacities, building and mobilising new knowledge for community change. Its overall objective is the generation of new co-constructed knowledge to address critical issues facing local communities through research capacity development, centred on community-based experiential training.

The thinking is that policy and community-change agendas can occur when academics come together with civil society organisations in participatory processes to cocreate knowledge around society’s most pressing issues. These hubs are one example of initiated change through research in the community-university-society relationship globally, with its focus on knowledge democracy and the co-creation of knowledge.

It is important that the history of community-university-society relationship and its influence on contemporary higher education CE in South Africa be told, written and known. Critical and structured reflection is an essential learning activity in CE. Reflection on experiences can take many forms, including the telling of stories on the CE experience and through relating current experiences to prior knowledge, perceptions, and historical events. This knowledge will have a significant impact on future possibilities for community engagement, specifically with regard to epistemic justice, social justice and the cultivation of humanity in South Africa and the rest of Africa.

Previous Conferences

2024 - Community Engagement Conference - Community Engagement And The Trajectory Of Community-University-Society Relationship: Past, Present And Future Possibilities

2023 - Community Engagement Learning Symposium - In Partnership with Rhodes University Centre of Higher Education Research, Teaching and Learning - The Significance and Impact of Higher Education Community Engagement for South Africa and the Continent

2021 - Community Engagement Symposium - The role of Community Engagement in the reimagination of higher education during and post the Covid 19 Pandemic -CE Symposium 2021 Booklet 



Last Modified: Tue, 18 Jun 2024 09:21:20 SAST