The quest for seeking societal relevance of Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) continues unabated. Every time governments present annual budgets to their parliaments and/or publics, questions about the relevance of such huge public investment are raised. Higher student enrolment rates as a yardstick for economic development are quoted to justify such investments. National Knowledge Commissions, on the other hand, ask how many patents have been secured by university researchers, as benchmark for global economic competition.
Rarely are questions raised about how many local problems affecting the lives of communities around HEIs have been provided support in finding durable solutions? How many times the university has enabled open, democratic public discourse on key issues facing society, such that a meaningful and respectful agreement may be reached by various actors in society? On how many occasions have local community leaders, especially women, walked into the office of the Vice-Chancellor or Dean to demand that its considerable intellectual resources are deployed to address the challenges facing their neighbourhoods?
It is in response to such challenges that many HEIs around the world have begun to create mechanisms that re-position their identity in society. Sample a few below:
- University within community
- Institute for Entrepreneurship
- Centre for Community-based Partnerships
- Centre for Public Involvement
Now, the University Grants Commission, Government of India has launched a Scheme for financial assistance to qualifying universities to set up Centre for Fostering Social Responsibility and Community Engagement.
Do these new mechanisms result in re-positioning of universities in societies? Or are they mere appendices, tugged away on the margins of essentially a stagnant institutional structure? Will such mechanisms shift the nature of accountability of research and teaching functions of HEIs towards external publics, beyond the funders and government ministries? Will other societal actors—community leaders, local governments, civil society, media, etc.—at all bother to look at these new mechanisms as vehicles for re-positioning of universities in their societies?
The conversations about ‘re-positioning’ of universities need to be accelerated not just in universities and ministries of higher education, but also amongst publics at large in society.
Rajesh Tandon December 17, 2014