The University of the Western Cape transformed its overly engaged soup kitchen approach to community engagement

26-10-21 USAf 0 comment

Professor Vivienne Lawack became an unexpected presenter at Universities South Africa’s (USAf’s) recent conference on The Engaged University.

Lawack (left), Deputy Vice-Chancellor: Academic and law professor at the University of the Western Cape (UWC), was scheduled to chair USAf’s Teaching and Learning Strategy Group’s third and final breakaway session on community engagement.

Unexpectedly, after two panelists had spoken, Lawack announced that the third panelist was no longer able to join the discussion on Harnessing Community Engagement to produce engaged, critical and democratic graduates – and she used the opportunity to share UWC’s practices.

She explained that as Deputy Vice-Chancellor: Academic, community engagement is part of her portfolio, so there is no separation between what happens in the classroom and the way they think about curricular transformation and unpack their graduate attributes.

“It was quite interesting for me, when I joined UWC in 2015, to see how engaged the university was, to such an extent that it was probably over engaged. And there was much more of what I call ‘the soup kitchen approach’ in the sense of engaging at communities, and not taking the communities with us, even in the construction of our community projects,” she said.

So they set about determining what community engagement would be for UWC. They did this by collaborating with their community and partners to come up with a set of community engagement principles.

Then, with these partners, they established the annual Community Engagement Colloquium, and “put it right up there, as important as learning and teaching, research, and ensuring that what we now talk about is no longer a soup kitchen approach to community engagement, but rather, an integrated scholarship of engagement where everything is linked through the gel, the connector of community engagement,” she said.

They then related community engagement to the four general purposes of the 1997 White Paper (Education White Paper 3 – A Programme for Higher Education Transformation, of 1997). Essentially transformational goals, they refer to contributing to and supporting the process of societal transformation, and the “vision of people-driven development leading to the building of a better quality of life for all”.

She mentioned an interesting development at her institution. The moment community engagement was linked to promotion changed educators’ attitudes completely. The question “to what extent can you demonstrate that you have integrated your community engagement in your learning and teaching and/or your research?” was added to academics’ promotion criteria. So, for example, said Lawack, if someone said they teach swimming at a school, and that person is a scientist, it is good, it is outreach, but that does not fit the criteria for promotion.

They introduced reward and recognition for excellence in community engagement, both for individuals and teams, and those Excellence Awards boosted both the person or team and the community they worked with.

To create prominence and make it overt, they established a community engagement database. Even now, despite the CoViD-19 pandemic, the database features 100 projects across the university’s seven faculties. All need to adhere to their key principles, which include that the community must be part of all processes, even in the construction of research questions.

Another way of making it overt was to craft a Scholarship of Engagement Report, “to look at all our research where communities were involved in the construction of that research, and where there was impact on the community,” she said. Initiated last year, they are now busy with the second report.

Inspired by a methodology Lawack had seen in action when she worked at Nelson Mandela University, UWC initiated what they term Courageous Café Conversations. These are held on campus with students and staff but the most impactful are the Courageous Café Conversations with alumni, which Lawack said “have helped us in relation to framing community engagement. It is linked to our graduate attributes, and to our intellectual identity at UWC”.

In this way she has spent time with about 1000 alumni. And the most prominent idea that has been mentioned about the university’s identity was “UWC’s sense of social justice and the fact that you feel in the DNA that you need to be involved with the community, “ said Lawack. “That’s probably why I found the almost over-involvement initially”.

The University has reflected on this and has been thinking that if community engagement is such an integral part of UWC’s identity, “how do we then make sure that from the start, when the student comes in, or when a new academic comes in, we leverage that so it becomes part of our academic project?” she asked.

Lawack said community engagement needs to be taken “out of the realm of doing good to society but rather working with society for the public good”.

This would solve their own problems too because universities are not divorced from their communities. And it could lead to universities being “the translators between the local and the global because, if we can find solutions to our own problems by working with our communities, why should the West, the (global) North, come and try to solve our problems,” said Professor Lawack.

Gillian Anstey is a contract writer for Universities South Africa.