Working together to change the world through community engagement

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Deputy Vice-Chancellor for Research and Innovation, Dr Peter Clayton giving a keynote address during the third day of the Community Engagement Symposium.
Deputy Vice-Chancellor for Research and Innovation, Dr Peter Clayton giving a keynote address during the third day of the Community Engagement Symposium.

By Sam van Heerden, Masters in Philosophy student


In a world facing many global challenges amidst faltering leadership, bottom-up community projects are often the humble heralds of social change. But their pivotal role is often overlooked. This was the sentiment shared during Rhodes University Community Engagement (RUCE) Symposium on Thursday. In collaboration with Durban University of Technology (DUT), the three-day conference was held online and in-person (hybrid) at the Amazwi South African Museum of Literature.

The conference discussed the role of community engagement in social change, the possibilities offered by service-learning, its status at the University and national level, and the importance of parent engagement in scholars’ learning.

RUCE Research Group Coordinator Claire McCann asked: “How do we begin to conceptualise a university that is responsive to the problems of the 21st century?” She explained that universities are increasingly run like businesses, concerned primarily with private returns to the individual student. But in order to tackle global challenges such as climate change, inequality, poverty, and pandemics, this is not enough.

RUCE Director Di Hornby and DUT’s Dr Margie Maistry from DUT implored for a higher education system rooted in a deep sense of humanity. That encourages students to lead ethical lives of personal fulfilment for the greater good of society. While change may seem difficult to fathom, McCann believes that volunteerism can play a role in transforming the university into one for the public good. “Community engagement can help nurture graduates that are not just prepared for the labour market, but are ready to change their world,” she said.

As one of the core functions of Rhodes University, community engagement is manifested om the forms of volunteerism, service learning and engaged research. Service-learning refers to combining discipline-based knowledge with practical projects which are mutually beneficial for students and the community. From journalism students helping to upload learning resources onto easily transportable and accessible flash-disks for scholars and their parents to pharmacy students helping to create sanitiser for the community during the pandemic, Rhodes University has increasingly tried to incorporate meaningful work into the curriculum.

“[Service learning] is about bringing humanism and citizenship back into our system,” said RUCE researcher Dr Joana Bezerra. She said that citizenship is about participation in public life and that service-learning can encourage this. Rhodes University student Nigel Machiha said: “Community engagement provides an environment where students can exercise social responsibility.” He said community engagement could help promote the decolonisation of universities. He said programmes such as the Nine Tenths Matric Mentoring Programme, which saw Makhanda going from one of the worst-performing towns in terms of matric results to the best performing town in the Eastern Cape, could help break down barriers to higher education.

Nelson Mandela University student Phakamani Pungu-Pungu said, “Schools are part of a community, and [it needs to work together].” He said that the absence of adequate teachers in public schools in South Africa is crippling an already fragile education system. “Schools need to work together with the community and other organisations such as higher education institutions, to promote community building and resolving community issues,” he said.

Deputy Vice-Chancellor for Research & Innovation, Dr Peter Clayton, explained that community engagement is not included in the funding block from the government. “Engaged research, which involves working collaboratively with communities to impact change and produce knowledge, is often a long road. It’s difficult to show sustainable [changes] in a short space of time,” said Dr Clayton. He further said funding is increasingly determined by number games: numbers of citations, publications, and so on. But social change can be difficult to quantify.

“Universities are meant to be for the public good, and their impacts should be felt beyond the boundaries of the university,” concluded Dr Clayton.

The conclusion of the symposium highlighted the urgency for higher education institutions to reflect on and reimagine the purpose of higher education in light of the disruption and resultant changes brought about by the Covid 19 pandemic. Educating students for a career only in the currently dominating knowledge economy context is no longer feasible nor sufficient. Students are potential leaders of society and educating them as whole human beings and cultivating humanity must become the reimagined purpose of higher education. Students participation and presentation at the symposium clearly highlighted their leadership capacity and potential to be humane and socially just leaders of the future.  Community Engagement has the potential to play a key role in the reimagination of higher education institutions through its nexus with teaching and research. Unfortunately, community engagement is still positioned at the periphery of most universities in South Africa. As a collective, university leadership in South Africa have the responsibility to make the shift of bringing community engagement to the centre of its functions and its reimagined purpose.