Community Engagement in an Engaged University: Nelson Mandela University’s documented 18-year journey
“If we are to monitor and evaluate our community engagement effectively, we have to look at ourselves to see that we are not just paying lip service.” So began Professor George de Lange, Director: Engagement Office at Nelson Mandela University. He was speaking at Universities South Africa’s 2nd USAf Higher Education Conference that was jointly hosted with the Council on Higher Education (CHE) from 6 to 8 October.
The aim of this conference, themed The Engaged University, was to get South Africa’s higher education community to deliberate and debate, in the quest to mould more transformed, responsive and socially impactful institutions of the future.
Talking to the topic Monitoring and Evaluation of the University Community Engagement Role during a CHE-hosted plenary session on Day Two of this event, Professor de Lange asked: “Is our house in order? What needs to be in place to effectively evaluate the impact of what we are doing in terms of community engagement (CE)? What potential indicators can be used?”
Professor De Lange (left) charted Nelson Mandela University’s 18-year community engagement journey.
“Between 2003 and 2021, I’ve looked at what the milestones have been in the institutionalisation process at Nelson Mandela University. Based on that, I’ve looked at universities at the national level to say, what are the indicators that could potentially be used for monitoring?”
He said indicators might be determined by the progress that universities make on their journey to becoming an engaged university. To make his point, he used 18 years of documentation of specific milestones at NMU, out of which several publications have flowed.
Struggle with monitoring and evaluating
Some universities have moved much faster, further in the process of institutionalising CE, he said, while others are still struggling – mostly with monitoring and evaluation.
“By institutionalisation of CE I mean a successful fusion of an idea and practice across the university. It is about moving it from the margins of the institution to its core. In other words, it is not considered an add-on or a peripheral activity. It’s a scholarly activity that is ingrained in what you are doing; it’s about how you teach, what you teach as well as how and what you research.”
Thus, he unpacked the NMU case study.
Renaming the university
“Specifically since 2018, when the university was renamed NMU, you find that it included a critical reflection, not only on the university’s purpose, but also its values as essential to the nature of engagement itself. In the 18 years I’ve looked at the pre-merger, merger and post-merger period. I was there from the beginning, as Director of Engagement.”
He said merging allows a new perspective, where you can relook at things and change them to suit the changed need. It’s what NMU did. “The process of moving towards an engaged university started when Dr Rolf Stumpf, then vice chancellor of the University of Port Elizabeth (UPE). He said UPE would become an Engaged institution.”
Documenting the merger
Even before the merging process began, a conference titled The University and the City: Towards an Engaged University for the Nelson Mandela Metropole – was held in PE. “And so, the impetus was set for this new institution as we moved forward with regards to institutionalising engagement,” Professor de Lange said.
He said it was important that there was a clear understanding of the university’s engagement conceptual framework, as well as its philosophy and approach. “This will change from university to university – you’re either a research university or a comprehensive university or a traditional university. A conceptual framework where everyone understands what it is and how you view engagement, is then integrated and embedded into the core functions. That includes the policies, the KPAs, the recognition and rewards systems and the structures of the university.”
These indicators make it easier to monitor and evaluate the effectiveness of engagement projects. The establishment of an engagement office also support that.
He had documented the entire institutionalisation process of engagement through the post-merger phase, namely:
- The development of a University-Community Engagement Conceptual Framework and Typology.
- The Development of an Engagement Management Information System.
- The establishment of an Engagement Advancement Fund – Project funding.
Out of these processes, the professor produced five newspaper supplements. Further to those supplements, the university invited members of the public to comment on what their expectations were of an Engaged University. “This was, to a certain extent, monitoring and evaluating ourselves.” Then NMU embarked on two studies:
- The Engaged University and the City: A Case Study in 2017.
- The Engaged University and the Specificity of Place: The Case of Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University –followed in 2018.
“The University kept on reflecting on itself. Were we really an engaged university that would be impactful?
New leadership; new thinking
“We had a name change, and then came the appointment of new Vice-Chancellor, Professor Sibongile Muthwa, followed by the appointment of Deputy Vice-Chancellor, Professor Andrè Keet. I think it’s very important to note the importance leadership plays,” he said.
From 2018, NMU started repositioning the engagement process to be more in service OF society than TO society. There was a change in emphasis in co-creation and conversions and sharing and co-creating of knowledge. “Then we went through an organisational redesign programme where we established an engagement and transformation portfolio.”
From literature and his own experience, the professor lists 15 indices needed to monitor and evaluate universities and show the main drivers and enablers are effective:
- Institutional Vision, Mission and Strategic plans that tell that the university sees itself as an engaged university.
- Executive Leadership support and positioning within the institution.
- How the university conceptualises CE and the policy framework that underpins it.
- Its approach to CE: the importance of a scholarly approach to ensure its sustainability.
- Institutional support, co-ordination and governance structures.
- CE enabling structures (units, centres, institutes).
- Programme qualification mix – curricular engagement.
- Recognising and rewarding CE.
- Inclusion of CE in promotion criteria and KPAs.
- Capacity and professional development.
- Community voice.
- Student voice and participation.
- CE champions.
- Internal and external funding.
- Documenting, reporting, profiling, publishing of CE related outputs.
“We have just developed our vision 2030 and the thrust is that of an Engaged University. It starts off saying: Nelson Mandela University is in the service of society so that our knowledge contributes to co-creating a sustainable and socially just world. That is the value proposition that comes out of a strategic plan and vision. It also says: ‘Engage with all publics in mutually beneficial partnerships that advance agency and promote co-creation of African-purposed solutions to foster a more equal and just society.’
“This is where the university wants to go. I don’t think we will ever get to a position where we say we are fully engaged, but we are striving to get there,” Professor de Lange said.
Positioning engagement for success
Professor de Lange says that in most universities, CE lies within the office of the Deputy Vice Chancellor (DVC). Leadership needs to drive the process. In terms of institutionalisation, the important aspects of support structure positioning are encompassed in the intentionality of design and the link to teaching and learning and research.
Most universities are engaged in teaching and learning and research and the provision of service. While there may be different conceptual frameworks at different universities, after securing buy-in to those frameworks, monitoring and evaluation becomes easier when everyone is talking the same language.
- This framework needs to be reflected, integrated and embedded in the university’s core functions.
- The university’s approach should be scholarly.
- CE projects should be anchored in scholarship. CE underpinned on the architecture of scholarship wins the support of academic staff as it is aligned to their values, recognition and reward systems. This sustains engagement. Often if it is an add-on, it becomes difficult to sustain.
- You need a CE co-ordination and governance structure, a centralised office responsible for academic support, co-ordination, monitoring, documenting (normally driven by a DVC). Governance structures help to monitor processes.
“At NMU we have a Hub of Convergence where we have community representation working on specific issues. We must remember that engagement does not reside and happen only in the office of the DVC. It happens all over the university, at faculty level. It is departmentally-driven,” he said.
Inclusion of a community voice can be an extraordinary indicator of the university CE agenda as it suggests a trust relationship. “These community voices come via engagement forums, communities of practice, hubs of convergence, programme advisory committees and entity advisory boards. They also serve a monitoring and evaluation function of activities of the university — in other words, they are your oversight structures,” the professor said.
He concluded: “If you take CE seriously you should monitor it and report on it.”
Charmain Naidoo is a contract writer for Universities South Africa.