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Making Engagement Relevant in Higher Education

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“We listen to public, and they have a say in setting the research agenda. After all, universities undertake research with public funds; they must be accountable to the public”. Such were the sentiments expressed during three dialogues on ‘strengthening community engagement in higher education in India’ during March 3-7, 2014.
Students and faculty at North Bengal University (Siliguri) and Punjab University (Chandigarh) were excited about the possibility that the theme of social responsibility enshrined in the 12th Five Year Plan of Government of India may actually be soon operationalized. They saw the educational potential of engaged learning, through research with community and community practitioners as teachers. The students felt that enhanced and integrated engagement would make them skilled in ways that would improve their employability and make them better citizens.

The policy-makers were emphatic in making community engagement a two-way learning process for community and higher education institutions during the dialogue in Delhi; it was recognized that the entire network of university institutions, and not just students, should be engaged with the community.

Many universities and colleges are already attempting some forms of engagements; however, those engagements are not institutionalized. They remain outside the core curriculum and not earn credits for students. They depend on individual professor’s interests, and not included in their performance assessments.

Yet, the enthusiasm of all those (more than 300 students, professors and policy-makers) who participated in these dialogues confirmed that there is growing recognition of the urgency of making higher education, and its institutions, socially responsible, and accountable.

There remain many challenges to this road ahead. The most critical of these is the institutional inertia, and resistance to change. Universities are slow to anticipate and plan changes. National government policy and professional incentives can encourage changes in curriculum and pedagogy such that engagement becomes integral to learning and knowledge production.

An important first step in this direction is to map, document and analyse current practices of engagements; much is happening, but little is known. Synthesis of such practices can reinforce the core principles of engagement, and demonstrate certain benchmarks of quality in this regard. In the absence of such quality benchmarks, anything, and everything, can be construed to be relevant engagement. The assessments of the results of engagements, both for students/faculty and community, need to be critically made so that evidence can drive further operationalization of policy.

It was finally recognized that interface structures are necessary to promote, screen and enable sustainable and impactful engagements. Each college and university needs to figure this out. Likewise, each community, and their supporting NGOs, need to figure out a mechanism for engagement. The demand side of engagement from the community and civil society needs to be articulated much more vocally than has been the case in India so far.

Dialogues last week generated much hope and enthusiasm; it needs follow-up?

Rajesh Tandon March 9, 2014

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