On the ground: how universities are practically engaging with their communities

13-10-21 USAf 0 comment

Narratives of community engagement took delegates from Mamelodi in Tshwane to Pietermaritzburg in KZN and Woodstock in the Western Cape. Covering a range of programmes from the Durban University of Technology, University of Pretoria to the University of the Western Cape, the deliberations highlighted the innovative and disparate activities that are currently underway.

Hosted by the Council on Higher Education during Universities South Africa’s 2nd Higher Education Conference last week, the session titled Engaged Universities as Anchor Institutions: 3 Case Studies, sought to examine some of the models of community engagement that are currently playing out at some of South Africa’s universities.

The three selected institutions are known as anchored universities — physically located in communities. This relationship between the university and the community was the focus of the session. It also matters that these relations are practical and give flesh to the theoretical notion of re-imagining the university.

Professor Sibusiso Moyo is the Deputy Vice-Chancellor: Research, Innovation and Engagement for the Durban University of Technology (DUT). She began proceedings by offering a broad definition of the engaged anchored university as one “well integrated with its local, regional and global context”.

Ground rules

As was already established from other speakers at the Conference, community engagement is not an ad hoc addition to the normal functioning of teaching and learning. Rather, it is a calculated assessment of the context of the university, its capacity and strengths and where best it can interact effectively with its surrounding community.

Professor Moyo gave a brief overview of DUT’s stakeholders, its seven delivery sites, student and staff numbers and publication rates. Only within this context is it possible to devise a community engagement strategy which needs to highlight:

  • A consistent physical and economic presence, both in Durban and Pietermaritzburg.
  • How the university can contribute to social economic development and transformation.
  • How it contributes to knowledge production and is able to translate its knowledge products from research and development (R&D) into products, services or enhanced innovations to improve the quality of life of the people in the area.

These activities are crucial to building local capacity within the region, but more importantly, for DUT, it builds trust between the university and the community and places the university as a central partner in social development. Therefore, the process begins with an understanding of where the institution is, where it wants to go, how will it get there and finally how can DUT measure the impact of the benefit it provides to the community. Moreover, it is built into the strategy of the institution.

Beginning with stewardship (building of a conducive culture based of solid ethical values) and moving on to systems and process that are built upon this, it is possible for the university to create a sustainable entity best suited for maximising societal impact. It is for this reason that DUT focusses intensively on producing graduates who have obtained entrepreneurial training during their studies so that they are able to collaborate with others for purposes of building innovative economic activities.

Rankings and innovation hubs

While acknowledging the problems around the hetero-normativity of rankings, Professor Moyo noted the importance of Impact Rankings which “explore the impact that a university can make, specifically by looking at themes of poverty, inequality, climate change, environmental degradation, peace and justice”. In addition, the fact that DUT is ranked as the number one university of technology in the country has meant that it has been approached by African and international institutions to collaborate on publications but also new technologies—like 3D engineering simulation—that are currently underway.

In collaboration with all stakeholders, DUT is currently building hubs within the next five years that will be physical spaces to house graduates, students and staff brought together by exploring entrepreneurial activities. In Pietermaritzburg, the location has inspired an agrihub focused on farming, while Durban is focussing extensively on fashion and technology hubs. But these hubs will also allow for expansion of already prioritised areas like the water-food-energy nexus; Smart Urbanisation, Ecotourism and Green Transport; climate change projects; green engineering; and sustainable social transformation and social education and development.

The Mamelodi Collaborative

This is a partnership between the University of Pretoria (UP) and Rutgers university in the USA and is a hyper local engagement. Professor Nthabiseng Ogude (right), Dean and Professor of Science Education at the University of Pretoria (UP) made it clear that this was simply one instance of many collaborations entered into by the university. Based on a Memorandum of Understanding signed in 2017, the Mamelodi campus is an anchor university in so far “as it deploys its geographically bound assets, academic capital and economic power to revitalise neighbourhoods”. In this case the purpose is to stem the cycle of poverty that exists in this area by establishing baseline data and measuring the impact of the UP intervention over time.

The programme focusses on five key areas:

  1. Building strong educational pathways for increased post-secondary attainment (especially in the STEM subjects).
  2. Study science and the urban environment.
  3. Create strong, healthy and safe neighbourhoods.
  4. Promote and leverage arts and culture.
  5. Develop entrepreneurship and economic development.

To achieve these objectives, academic staff, students and post-graduates from a range of disciplines work with the community in a number of trans-disciplinary projects.

For Professor Ogude, her involvement and focus has been on the first key area with the idea that this hyper-local engagement will be upscaled — based on the lessons learned at the community level. It all begins with backward articulation. This is the notion that a successful graduate requires strong early childhood development (ECD).

Fixing the pipeline

Turning to the real matric pass rate—those who can access university— Professor Ogude points out that it has only moved from 39% in 2017 to 44% in 2020. Even this low base hides more disturbing national figures, for example, in 2018, only 25% got more than 50% for maths and only 25% achieved more than 50% for physical science — not to mention the 4000,000 learners who vanish from the system before making it to the national school certificate exam. To address this challenge, a substantial number of networks between UP and the community were established, starting at ECD level and growing in number through each phase of the schooling process. These all feed into UP’s extra curricula programme that seeks to enhance success at each of these levels. Involved in this project are 10 post-graduates, 50 undergraduates covering six faculties, 40 schools, two TVET colleges and five ECD centres.

The crucial point in this initiative is to orientate learners, especially from Grade 8 onwards, towards a tertiary culture (especially conceptual learning) and incorporating that into their studies. UP offers after school, winter, Saturday and online learning to about 1,500 learners especially in Maths, Physical Science, language and computer literacy. This seeks to ensure that the spatial boundaries between the Mamelodi campus and the community are porous. So, learners have access to libraries, computer rooms, lecture halls and sports facilities.

Results for the 2019 cohort are heartening—53% obtained over 50% for Physical Science and 29% over 80%. UP intends to scale this up in 2022. Currently located in Tshwane South, the university will be expanding into Tshwane North and West.

Connecting possibilities

Moving to the Western Cape, Mr Larry Pokpas, Institutional Planner at the University of the Western Cape (UWC) makes it clear that the anchor mission for the university is to build a better future for the community. “Community engagement is not a nice to have” but integral to the core purpose of the university and that purpose is to “accelerate action to address social disparities”. Each and every project undertaken within the community must raise expectations of a better future.

To give further clarity to this idea he refers to the Choluteca bridge (above) built in Honolulu. It was built to withstand the greatest hurricane imaginable, but in 1998, Hurricane Mitch struck and permanently diverted the river rending the bridge useless. Universities are called to reflect on this metaphor and constantly interrogate the extent to which although they are physically anchored to the space they occupy, are they disconnected and disengaged.

Sticky institutions

Pokpas then briefly traced the history of UWC from its establishment in 1960 with the apartheid agenda to conduct low-level training, to its reimagination by 1980 as the “intellectual home of the democratic left” in the country. Ironically, the hardest period for the university came in the post democratic era when it lost its top management, senior staff and students to cabinet and government. It took a decade for UWC to rebuild itself as an intellectual force. But as it re-built itself there was a distinct change in the university’s vision trajectory as a mechanism to build a better future. It made the decision that it would adopt a ‘corridor approach’ and would extent its reach north in the central business district of Bellville as well as into the Cape Town centre.

UWC acquired land in the run-down part of the Bellville CBD and moved its Health Science faculty into the area as a way of bringing services to the area and contributing to “catalytic urban revitalisation”. The second example comes from 30 hectares of barren land which lies next to the university. This ground has never been used and the idea is to work with local government to turn this area into a student village (with 2,700 beds). Presently, UWN only has space for 12% of its students at residences, leaving students with a difficult daily commute.

Thirdly, UWC has co-located some of its Humanities disciplines into the culturally rich area of Woodstock. By upgrading an abandoned heritage site it provides a space for artists in the community a home from which to work and exhibit. In all of these projects it is important to understand the context of the project. There is no one that fits all.

To conclude, Mr Pokpas returned to the bridge: “we have to seize the transformational potential of engagement to forge meaningful and impactful university-community relations that will build an inspiring sense of our future”.

In the discussion that followed, one provocative point arose and was warmly welcomed by the speakers: the need to do away with community engagement as the third pillar of the institution because in doing so it was relegated to the margins of the university’s focus. Instead, the community-university nexus should be incorporated into the fundamentals of teaching and learning and research — and should be funded accordingly.

Written by Patrick Fish, an independent writer commissioned by Universities South Africa.