Universities are responsible for the well-being of the communities in which they exist

Dr Samuels Fongwa, Senior Research Specialist in the Inclusive Economic Development (IED) Division at the Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC) [Image credit: RUCE]
Dr Samuels Fongwa, Senior Research Specialist in the Inclusive Economic Development (IED) Division at the Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC) [Image credit: RUCE]

By Bukamuso Sebata


On 09 May 2023, the Rhodes University Community Engagement division launched its Community Engagement (CE) Learning Symposium, which included speakers from all over the globe. This was the first of three days of discussions and workshops centred around highlighting, as per the official website, the "developmental and transformative roles of universities" in incorporating CE in their institutions to serve "as a platform to build community-university relationships for the mutual benefit of all those involved in CE, such as students, communities and academics".

This symposium delved into the importance of Community Engagement in higher education and explored how it can make a difference in South Africa and other parts of Africa. Although CE is a relatively recent concept in higher education and is not yet fully established, it is gaining momentum as a field of study. However, there are still some academics who question its legitimacy. Therefore, the symposium intended to produce theoretical and practical insights into Community Engagement and showcase its value in higher education and its evolving objectives. 

Vice-Chancellor of Rhodes University, Professor Sizwe Mabizela, gave a welcoming speech highlighting the critical role institutions should be playing in their communities. He said that there must be a mutually-beneficial partnership between universities and the communities they are based in if they are to create and sustain a better and just society. Prof Mabizela said that universities are not charity organisations but knowledge institutions that should be committed to "producing and disseminating knowledge that leads to a positive change in the lives of our people, knowledge that transforms society, knowledge that transforms our world".

He said a true Community Engagement project produces graduates who are "positively engaged, empathetic, active, critical and democratic citizens with an elevated sense of social consciousness." Community Engagement allows students to learn more about themselves and their social realities through service learning and volunteering. This ensures that they become agents of social transformation.

Prof Mabizela highlighted the importance of partnerships between communities and universities when producing research and finding solutions to challenges facing academic spaces and society. To realise this objective, the partnership must become a vehicle for sharing ideas, knowledge, and expertise. "Through this, researchers and academics can learn from the community by drawing on the vast knowledge that resides in the community," said the Vice-Chancellor.

Community Engagement helps researchers see communities as spaces of learning instead of "charity cases where they must rescue people from their miserable existences". We must, said Mabizela, "acknowledge knowledge in its diversity because all of that contributes to the betterment of the human condition". Establishing CE in universities means it must be intentional and firmly anchored in teaching, learning, and research. It must also be transformational to all parties involved.

The second speaker was Dr Samuels Fongwa, Senior Research Specialist in the Inclusive Economic Development (IED) Division at the Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC). He focused on universities as anchor institutions in the communities. He defined anchor institutions, like universities, as public entities based in a particular area. These institutions have strong connections to their local community through their mission, invested capital, and relationships with customers, employees, residents, and vendors.

These institutions can engage in long-term planning that aligns their interests with those of the community. They have both the capability and the drive to contribute significantly to the long-term welfare of the communities they serve by utilising their institutional resources, such as hiring, purchasing, and investing, to meet the needs of those communities.

His main concern was how universities are positioning themselves as anchor institutions in their communities because the future and sustainability of a university are intrinsically bound to the future and sustainability of the community it is based in. Universities cannot continue being passive about what is happening in their communities.

Dr Fongwa talked about how higher education institutions and universities possess distinctive resources, including intellectual, human, physical, economic, and social capital. They prioritise contributing to the advancement of various aspects of human life through promoting scientific inquiry and application, providing skills for the labour force, and transforming society. This mission can be applied locally through Community Engagement as a platform to improve their understanding of pertinent social concerns.  

Dr Fongwa illustrated several examples of what constitutes an anchor institution. The University of Western Cape, he said, is in the process of revitalising Bellville's deteriorating central business by purchasing the multi-story Medical Centre to renovate it to house four health departments. This will enhance the university's visibility and bring healthcare services to an easily accessible location near the major bus and rail stations. The Sol Plaatjie University launched a CE initiative titled the 'Talent Pipeline Project' aimed at producing competent graduates who can fulfil society's aspirations, generate new knowledge to address critical regional challenges and engage in critical discourse and interactions with communities to find pathways to equitable development.

The Talent Pipeline Project has identified a lack of educational stimulus plans in the region, creating a disparity in rural learners' access to higher education. The project seeks to level the playing field and create a pathway for academically excellent rural learners to access university education.

He also mentioned the Rhodes University VC’s Education Initiative, which has led the revitalisation of public education in Makhanda, as another example of how universities have anchored themselves in the local community.  These examples are accomplished through strong partnerships with local schools, teachers, parents, and learners. 

Dr Fongwa concluded his talk by saying that universities are responsible for the social and economic well-being of the communities in which they are located. Community Engagement is an effective teaching method for universities; service learning is an example. Adopting an anchor institution approach can be an effective way for universities to address local and regional development needs while promoting inclusivity. Each university must determine its anchor mission with its unique context with a well-defined policy framework.