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Transforming Higher Education through Community Engagement in India

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Universities in India can realise their potential for democratic development of the country only through a transformative process. Community Engagement (CE) can be a vehicle for such a transformation of higher education in the country.

Such views were deliberated upon during a day-long brainstorming session convened by UNESCO Chair (Dr Rajesh Tandon) at PRIA last week. Twelve universities participated in this brainstorming to explore the potential of newly launched funding scheme by University Grants Commission of India. The scheme is called ‘Centre for Fostering social Responsibility and Community Engagement in Higher Education”. (http://unescochair-cbrsr.org/unesco/university-grants-commission-ugc-to-establish-centre-for-fostering-social-responsibility-and-community-engagement-cfsrce-in-universities/ )

If community engagement is different from traditional ‘outreach’ activities of the universities in India, then what does it mean in practice? It is not the ‘adoption of a village or slum’ approach, then what does it mean? Is it one more centre with physical infrastructure and staff?

Several interesting formulations emerged from this brainstorming. First, this Centre can be a basis to bring the university ‘back into society’, since most universities have today become marginalised in public discourse on national development.
Second, community engagement can provide students an opportunity to learn citizenship in practice; engagement in community has the potential to become ‘sites of citizenship’.

Third, university teaching, pedagogy and curriculum can become truly emancipatory if engagement is ‘embedded’ in the very processes of teaching and learning in the university.

Fourth, the Centre can encompass the entire university faculties and institutes by promoting community engagement institution-wide, and remain a ‘virtual’ catalytic centre. In that sense, this Centre doesn’t do field work or teaching of new courses or…It facilitates ‘doing’ by existing faculties and departments in the university.

Fifth, practice of participatory research methodology, when mainstreamed in the university, can create the ‘ethos’ for ‘learning from the community’ and co-construction of knowledge. In turn, this may prepare students and faculty to be good ‘listeners’ of realities of communities.

The new UGC scheme is a great opportunity for exploring the transformation of universities in ways that can make an impact not only on the communities, but also on the universities. Champions of community engagement in universities can play very meaningful roles in realisation of such a potential if the new UGC scheme is deployed strategically.

Rajesh Tandon 
February 9, 2015

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