Two sets of conversations between practitioners and scholars of engagement of higher education institutions (HEIs) with the larger society reinforced its strategic nature.
The first conversation took place in Edmonton (Canada) where 15th Annual Conference of Engaged Scholarship Consortium was held. Nearly 550 delegates from across USA and Canada shared their practices and policies of engagement. In welcoming the delegates to Edmonton, the elders of the First Nations of the region underscored the value of respect—respect for their culture and knowledge. This principle of respect is the bedrock of any engagement between universities and communities. The Chancellor of the University of Alberta, in welcoming the delegates, reminded us all about the urgent need to ‘represent public interest’ through engagement.
The conversations around practical manifestations of engaged scholarship over the two days brought out a rich tapestry of methods, tools, capacities and challenges. The Consortium’s young scholar program recognised the promise of continuity in this body of practice and knowledge. What was perhaps missing from the conversations was the institutional leadership of universities. Mainstreaming engagement in the two core missions of higher education institutions (HEI)—research and teaching—is the strategic call of tomorrow. Service as a standalone mission of HEIs will not be enough to address the complex, global and wicked problems of our times.
The second conversation took place in Sant Pau heritage centre in Barcelona. The 5th World Report on Higher Education entitled “Knowledge, Engagement and higher Education: Contributing to Social Change” produced by Global University Network for Innovations (GUNI) was launched. In opening the conversation and welcoming nearly 100 delegates to the launch, the mayor of the city of Barcelona emphasised the importance of learning and knowledge for the dynamisms of the city. The engagement from the universities seemed to be lagging behind the requirements of the city and its citizens. “If societies and cities change, why can’t universities change?”, he asked.
The conversations in Barcelona were centred around the shifting priorities of universities. Under pressure to establish a place in the global ranking order, many universities are ignoring the local. But, the local is the global today. Engagement is crucial academic work, it needs recognition and support. The students of Catalanyua are asking for public engagement through teaching and research. The Spanish higher education system has been historically designed to keep universities ‘aloof’ from society. Making this shift is challenging, yet essential for the long-term health of HEIs.
Engagement is strategic for both higher education and society. HEIs need to be strategically engaged in society; societies need to strategically demand, and support, engaged learning and scholarship. Excellence in engagement is strategic for the well-being of society and university.