A one and a half day Education Dialogue, was held in the premises of Indian Institute of Technology, Guwahati on the 17th and the 18th of September’ 2014. The event was organized by IIT-G, in collaboration with British council, ICSSR, and UNESCO Chair in Community Based Research and Social Responsibility in Higher Education. The dialogue was organized with multiple aims including assessing current levels and quality of community engagement in Assam and other North Eastern regions, analyzing best practices and meanings of social responsibility as practiced in the North East, and to identify strategies to scale up community engagement as per the 12th five year plan.
The first day of the event had three distinct sessions. The day began with the inaugural session, wherein the welcome address was delivered by Dr Pahi Saikia, Assistant Professor, Department of Humanities and Social Sciences (HSS), IIT-G. In her address, she extended a very warm welcome to the delegates and invited them for an engaged brain storming during the course of the consultation. The event was also graced by the presence of the Head of the Department, HSS, Dr Arupjyoti Saikia, who outlined the important role played by the department in offering an enabling environment for meaningful research under the realms of community engagement. He also recognized the vitality of such workshops as providing a fertile ground for sharing of rich experiences, along with providing a wealth of opportunities to learn and build lasting partnerships. Ms. Sujata Sen, Director, East India British Council presented a brief overview of the British Council portfolio in Higher Education and briefed the audience about different programs undertaken by the Council under different frameworks such as IHE (Internationalising Higher Education), UKIERI (UK-India Education Research Initiative) and SIEM (Services for International Education Marketing). Dr. Rajesh Tandon, Co-chair, UNESCO Chair in Community Based Research and Social Responsibility in Higher Education, set the stage for the dialogue and highlighted the need to internalise community engagement in all faculties as part of the curriculum, to incentivise it and include it as a criterion for accreditation of universities.
Picture 1: Dr Rajesh Tandon, delivering his address at the dialogue.
The first plenary session, ‘Trends in Assam’, was chaired by Professor Rakesh Gupta, Visiting professor of Political Science, IIT-G. Dr Pahi Saikia, shared and discussed the findings of a survey on community engagement in Higher Education Institutions in IIT-G, Gauhati University and Cotton College University. She shared the findings collated from various departments under the respective institutions, along with putting up some relevant questions. Dr Saikia’s presentation was followed by the address by Ms. Sarmistha Das, Assistant Professor, Tezpur University. As she shared the findings of Tezpur University, she stated categorically that in addition to the present efforts, the University has scope to offer a lot more, if crucial issues such as inclusion of such activities in the curriculum and API scores were dealt with more seriously. Following Ms. Sarmishta’s presentation, Dr Binayak Dutta and Dr Susmita Sen presented the findings from the survey done in the North Eastern Hill University, Shillong. Dr Dutta outlined the important role played by the Department of Political Science and Department of History, in discharging the understanding of community development and providing opportunities for community engagement. He said that the departments have tried to move beyond traditional research and made a foray into unconventional methods of teaching and research. Dr R K Debbarma from Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS), Guwahati also shared the findings of the survey that was selectively focussed on only the MA courses that were offered in the disciplines of Social Work and Environment Ecology and Sustainable Development. He stated that there is still a lot of room for much more that could be done under the realm of community engagement in HEIs, including specific engagements aimed at mutual benefit. The sharing of the survey findings by the respective institutions was then followed by an open discussion session, which included comments from the audience, and comments from the chair, Prof. Rakesh Gupta.
Professor Dilip Baruah, Retired principal, Cotton College and Professor of Economics chaired the second plenary session on ‘Forms and Structures of Community Engagement’. As the first speaker for the session, Dr Ronki Ram, Dean, Faculty of Arts, Punjab University brought out the misconceptions that were prevalent in the academia with respect to community engagement in HEIs, and the need to clarify such doubts. He also mentioned about the one way flow of traffic with respect to flow of information from the academia to the community, with no efforts made to tap the latter’s indigenous knowledge. The next speaker for the session, Dr Mohammad Yasin, Head, Department of Lifelong Learning and Extension, North Bengal University, shared the experiences from Bengal, along with suggesting concrete points for future planning and action. He stated the abysmally low level of community engagement practices followed in the colleges and universities in Bengal, and the corresponding reasons for the same, such as lack of credits, financial resources and motivation. He also outlined the need for more such dialogues to be held in different parts of the country, in order to garner attention of the academia on the same.
Professor Girin Phukan, ICSSR National Fellow and Director, Institute of Tai Studies and Research mentioned the need to look at the overall socio economic system of our country, before focussing on community engagement in HEIs. He also brought the attention of the audience to the systemic fault lines within the HEIs of the country, which fulfilled class interest rather than community interest, thereby further limiting the scope of community engagement activities. Professor Dhrubajyoti Saikia, Vice-Chancellor, Cotton College State University brightened up the conversation by citing examples of students taking the lead in bringing about a positive change in the society. He also mentioned the importance of values and ethics imparted to students. Dr Saikia reiterated the commitment of Cotton College University towards fulfilling its responsibility towards the society, and building capacities of its students in a multitude of ways. Professor Apurba Jyoti Baruah, former professor of Political Science, NEHU and National Fellow, ICSSR, also pointed out to the fallacies in the higher education system, which has got commercialised with time. He also questioned the concept of ‘community’ and outlined the need to be careful while referring to it, because it may be heterogeneous, hierarchical and stratified. He also called out to the communities to now exercise their rights over the HEIs and demand services from them. The last segment of the session witnessed exhaustive deliberations, discussions and brainstorming on the various issues raised and the concerns highlighted in the course of the presentations made along the entire day.
Picture 2: Discussions and deliberations at the dialogue
The second and concluding day of the consultation began with the session moderated by Ms. Sujata Sen, Director, East India British Council, which saw concerns, issues and expectations raised by students of IIT-G. A number of them shared their personal experiences of working with the community in the field and outlined their expectation from the institution in providing them with a more enabling environment on the same. Ms Sen, based on the students reflections concluded that sensitivity towards community issues, bottlenecks in the system, and clear guidelines on the concept of ‘community engagement were some iof the issues which needed immediate attention.
This was followed by a session on ‘Policy implications’, chaired by Professor Arupjyoti Choudhary, Dean Academic, KKH University, Assam. Dr Mahfuza Rahman, Professor of Geography, Cotton College State University, brought the attention of the audience towards the understanding deficit prevalent at the ground level with respect to community engagement activities, which further got complicated due to lack of funding available. However, she reiterated that although challenging, social responsibility in academia must become a purpose. Dr Harendranath Das, Former Chief Secretary, Assam, apart from pointing out to the spatially limited efforts with respect to community engagement in HEIs, called out for joint collaboration between different state organizations, civil society groups such as PRIA, and academia to come on a common platform for fostering meaningful engagement activities. Professor Nani Gopal Mahanta, Professor of Political Science, Gauhati University also outlined the importance to tap the knowledge residing outside academic campuses and amidst the community, which can be both enriching and mutually beneficial. He cited the example of the activities undertaken under the Centre of Peace and Conflict Studies (PACS), an initiative of the Political Science department of Gauhati University as being one of a kind example in this regard, which offered opportunity for round table conferences with community leaders. Professor Akhil Ranjan Dutta, Professor of Political Science, Gauhati University pointed towards the faulty governmental policies that has been creating a divide between the communities itself. He emphasized the need to focus on both the micro and the macro issues while looking at the broader framework.
The final session of the day on ‘Ways Forwards’, was chaired by Dr Rajesh Tandon, Co-chair, UNESCO Chair on Community Based Research and Social Responsibility in Higher Education’. Professor Rakesh Gupta, as the first speaker called for a more robust partnership between the NGOs, HEIs and the community. He specifically called out to organisations like PRIA to help bridge the gap between the communities and the students through formation of self-representing organisations. Dr Pahi Saikia, restated the fact that any socially relevant research cannot be undertaken in isolation, and called out for the establishment of more interdisciplinary centres focused on such two-way research along with the communities. She cited the idea of conferment of ‘community engagement scholarships’, as being a positive step in ensuring meaningful engagement. Dr Rajesh Tandon, as he summed up the deliberations and the session, re-inforced the importance of giving due credit to the significant amount of knowledge that resides outside the campus while embarking on any research. He also mentioned about the need to outline institutional policies and practices in this regard, to have more focused and relevant community engagement activities within the HEIs.