Community engagement is globally recognised for its role in and contribution to transforming civil society, and South African universities are keenly aware of their mandate to advance communities.
Why then is community engagement (CE) the least monitored and evaluated activity, when it is so integral to teaching and learning and research — Professor Busisiwe Nkonki-Mandleni (right), Director: Community Engagement and Development at the Mangosuthu University of Technology asked delegates at Universities South Africa’s 2nd Higher Education Conference, that was jointly hosted with the Council on Higher Education (CHE) from 6 to 8 October.
The aim of this event, themed The Engaged University, was to provide a platform for thought leadership and academic debates among higher education stakeholders, with a view to re-imagining universities and moulding them into transformed, responsive and impactful institutions of the future.
Addressing the delegates during the CHE-hosted plenary which was titled Monitoring and Evaluation of the University Community Engagement Role on the third and final day of the conference, Professor Nkonki-Mandleni agreed with Professor Vhonani Netshandama, Director Community Engagement at the University of Venda, who had acknowledged that pockets of excellence existed within the system. Reiterating that CE was the binding glue, Professor Nkonki-Mandleni said CE, like research and teaching and learning, needs to be monitored and evaluated to make an impact.
For her part, Professor Netshandama told delegates that opportunities abounded in CE. However, like her fellow academics who were debating during this session, she posited that the journey was not without challenges.
Professor Nkonki-Mandleni, whose presentation was titled University Community Impact as a Means of Driving Transformation Agenda, went on to remind delegates that national imperatives needed to be observed around CE. She referenced policy instruments such as the National Plan for Higher Education (2001) and the White Paper 3: A Programme for the Transformation of Higher Education (1997.)
Speaking during the same session, Dr Vathiswa Papu-Zamxaka (left), Deputy Vice-Chancellor: Research, Innovation and Engagement at the Tshwane University of Technology said community engagement had been profoundly affected by the CoViD-19 pandemic.
Although she did not expound on the point above, Dr Papu-Zamxaka called for institutions to rethink their monitoring and evaluation role around community engagement and to re-prioritise the practice.
She said a 2013 survey, mentioned in a 2016 CHE report, names “inadequate development of mechanisms to evaluate the quality of CE at institutional level” as one of the barriers of practice. She also referenced Hall (Martin Hall, Emeritus Professor, UCT Business School) whose 2020 report, titled Community Engagement in South African Higher Education, indicates that there are “no articulated standards or objectives with clear indicators against which to monitor progress, measure impact or evaluate effectiveness of community engagement activities.
“There is a need to strengthen the university’s capacity to monitor and evaluate CE by forging links with international networks and organisations already working on this; to collaborate with them around the development of strategies for assessing and organising engaged scholarship,” she told the audience.
She also pointed to a growing need to review existing policy to strengthen the aspects on monitoring and evaluation of CE.
The importance of impact
Professor Nkonki-Mandleni said the value of monitoring and evaluating CE lay in assessing the performance, relevance, effectiveness and efficiency of programmes at universities, in accordance with specified performance objectives. “We need to adhere to a host of principles including social responsibility, sustainability, collaboration, transformation, reciprocity and equality, empowerment, ethical engagement, scholarly engagement. Compliance is the key.”
On why there was a need to evaluate, she said: “To be verified. Are we achieving our objectives? We need to be accountable – especially regarding funding. But we also need feedback that affords the chance to improve processes. It is also an integrity check.” She said that currently, universities were battling with monitoring and evaluation, adding that existing literature dwells more on outputs than outcomes.
She said monitoring and evaluation all started with setting goals, objectives, determining inputs and activities and anticipating outcomes and impact. These needed to be observed from conceptualisation through implementation and all the way to exit in all three domains of teaching and learning, research and innovation and service and outreach.
“You need to ask: what is it that we want to change?
- Be Specific: Set real deadlines with real numbers
- Measurable: set specific targets
- Attainable: set reasonably accomplishable goals within a set time frame
- Realistic: Honestly assess capabilities
- Time: Set deadlines.”
She said monitoring involved external stakeholders who must be made part of the process from conceptualisation to exit.
She said it was crucial that communities were involved in the development of programmes:
- How do community members ensure that the programme is culturally sensitive?
- Are community members involved in the development or application of theories?
- Does the process or structure of meetings allow for all voices to be heard and equally valued?
- Who leads the meetings?
- What is the mechanism for decision making or coming to consensus?
- How are conflicts handled?
Professor Nkonki-Mandleni used the domain of teaching and learning as an example in the process of monitoring and evaluation. “Since we work with diverse communities, we need to look at how we identify the module – this is informed by the economic setting.” She emphasised the need to obtain input from a wide selection of stakeholders on conceptualising the module. Other factors that need to be taken into consideration are whether community needs are being addressed in the module and whether there is inclusivity and knowledge transfer. “Transformation through social impact is only possible through community engagement,” she said.
Her recommendations included:
- Openness: Let us allow ourselves to be evaluated and corrected by our communities
- Partnerships: involve communities throughout the project life cycle
- Consensus: agree on appropriate tools to measure impact
- Methods: agree on standard methods that will incorporate critical community perspectives
- Consistency: in the definition of concepts and in conceptualising the CE framework
- Support: funding of CE mandate
- Dialogues: universities, committed to the common good, must engage with both the university community and the neighbouring community
- Resources: CE needs human, financial, physical resources
- Time allocation: workload model to be mindful of the extent of work in the CE.
According to the CHE framework for institutional audits (2021), Integrated community engagement refers to the core functions of higher education involving working constructively and co-operatively with communities which are connected to the institution, to make that institution more adaptive and responsive to needs that it could serve. Such integrated community engagement has the potential to affect or influence almost every aspect of an institution’s functioning. Community engagement should be specifically integrated with teaching and learning and research and should be based on, and enhanced by, the disciplinary knowledge and expertise of the institution.
Charmain Naidoo is a contract writer for Universities South Africa.