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Brief Report on the Conference on ‘Strengthening Community University Engagement in Higher Education Institutions’

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Centre for Research in Social Sciences & Education, Jain University, Bengaluru 18th & 19th of March’2015

“There is a need to develop suitable policies, initiate effective programs and evaluate the performance through an instrument such as social audit”: Dr PS Jayaramu, Former Dean & professor of Political Science (retd.), Bangalore University.

“Community Engagement & curricula needs to be seen as mutually inclusive, rather than exclusive”: Dr Cherian Alexander, St Joseph’s College, Bangalore

“What is being done is significant, but what still needs to be done is more significant. There is a need for innovation on a social platform, and continuous efforts aimed at the development of global citizens. We must create an enabling ecosystem in an informal climate, where there is considerable room for dynamism”: Dr MK Sridhar, Dean of Commerce and Management, Bangalore University

“The need of the hour is not of changing any policy, but changing mindsets”: Dr Shailaja Shastri, Professor, Jain University

“Community Engagement is not a gratis; it is a duty”: Professor SS Meenakshisundaram, Vice-Chairperson, MYRADA

“It is important to realize that the benefit, learnings and impacts emerging out of community engagement activities is mutually beneficial for both the communities and the universities”: Dr Rajesh Tandon, Co-Chair, UNESCO Chair in Community Based Research and Social Responsibility in Higher Education.

The UNESCO Chair partnered with CERSSE, Jain University (in association with the British Council), for the conduction of a one and a half conference on ‘Strengthening Community Engagement in Higher Education Institutions’ on the 18th & 19th of March’2015, at CERSSE, Bengaluru. The conference was a follow up event to the two month long exercise on mapping of community engagement practices in the HEIs in the state of Karnataka. Primarily, HEIs spanning the districts of Bengaluru, Mysore, Tumkur and Kanakpura were covered in the survey.

The conference saw the convergence of a range of stakeholders drawn from various fields of work such as the academia (including the students, teachers, and vice-chancellors), civil society organizations, policy makers etc. It served as the platform for extensive deliberations between the participants for one and a half days. The conference began by an introductory note given by Dr Mythili P Rao, Dean of Languages, Jain University, as she welcomed the guests and the esteemed panelists. This introduction was followed by an address by Dr Rajesh Tandon, Co-Chair, UNESCO Chair in Community Based Research and Social Responsibility in Higher Education. Dr Tandon attempted to provide the overall perspective on the topic, the expectations from the HEIs, principles of engagement, perspective of the 12th Plan on fostering social responsibility in HEIs, etc. Dr Tandon put before the participants the context, rationale and relevance of the topic at hand. The inaugural address of the event was given by Dr BK Chandrashekhar, Former Education Minister, Government of Karnataka. Dr Chandrashekhar provided the broad overview of the topic and spoke of his personal reflections on the same. He touched on certain pertinent and structural issues, such as the opportunities for integration of community engagement in the academic curriculum. He welcomed the initiative and outlined the importance of engaging in community engagement initiatives. The presidential address for the event was given by Dr N Sundarajan, wherein he briefly provided an outline of how Jain University has been doing its bit in taking the initiative forward.

The introductory session was followed by the launch of the draft report on the community engagement practices in HEIs in Karnataka, a collation of findings from the survey done under the project. Thereupon, the findings of the survey were jointly presented in the first plenary session by Dr Reetika Syal, Assistant professor, CERSSE and Ms. Nayantara Kurpad, Research Assistant CERSSE. Through a brief presentation, they put for the key points which emerged from the survey. They touched upon the findings from colleges such as Christ, Kristu Jayanti, St Joseph’s etc. Comments on the findings were provided by Dr Indira Mahendravada from Mysore University and Dr PS Jayaramu from Bangalore University, who served as discussants for the session. The session was chaired by Professor RS Deshpande, Former Director, Institute for Social and Economic Change. They touched on pertinent questions such as the degree and nature of engagement practices shared, institutional barriers, and opportunities for mainstreaming.

The third plenary session was aimed at a dedicated discussion on the Forms & Structures of Community Engagement. Chaired by the Professor K Eresi, Former Dean of Commerce, Bangalore University, the session began with a presentation by Ms. Wafa Singh, Program Officer, PRIA, who reflected on the experiences from the three other states covered under this project, viz, Punjab, Bengal and Assam. Along with providing a global and Indian perspective on community engagement, she outlined the unique initiatives emerging from the respective state based surveys. She also shared the trends that emerged from the findings and the ways forward for the future. Dr Sandeep Shastri, Pro-VC, Jain University and Director, CERSSE touched on issues beyond Jain University, and emphasized on the broader mandate of the initiative, which was not limited to social surveys only. He stressed on the importance of contextualization of the mandate, and the need to venture beyond classroom boundaries. He also advocated for increased interaction among different stakeholders. Mr Johny Joseph, Director, Centre for Social Action (CSA), Christ University stressed on the core values of community engagement and the role it plays in shaping the professional careers of the students. Likewise, Mr Sreedhar PD, NSS Head, Kristu Jayanti College broadly outlined the activities undertaken in his college as part of NSS/NCC and various other social outreach/extension initiatives. Along with the presentation, Mr Sreedhar also raised structural issues which had practical implications for community engagement. He called for solutions for better mainstreaming of such activities into the university curriculum, and for it more value oriented, rather than mechanically driven. Dr Cherian Alexander, from St Jospeh’s College, Bengaluru, who served as the discussant for the session, shared some of the key issues which emerged from the deliberations of the session. He re-emphasized the importance of regional specificities, advocacy of the issue at different platforms, need to deal with resource constraints, poor service delivery from the side of the government, etc. He stressed on the need to initiate a dialogue with the community for coming to terms with their particular value systems and sensitivities, before embarking on an engagement process with them.

The third plenary session was followed by an additional panel discussion on the same theme, focusing on experiences specifically from the Bangalore district. Chaired by Dr MK Sridhar, Dean of Commerce and Management, Bangalore University, this session witnessed some eminent speakers such as Dr BC Prabhakar, Director, IQAC, Bangalore University, Dr Clement D Souza, Welfare Officer, St Joseph’s college and Dr Basavaraja G., NSS Coordinator, Tumkur University. While Dr Prabhakar outlined the relevance of higher education to the society and the importance of students applying theoretical knowledge in the field; Prof D Souza spoke of Institutional Social Responsibility (ISR) and how his college has been applying this principle in different spheres. Dr Basavaraja brought the participants attention to the issue of how the semester system and rigid academic schedule proved to be a major hindrance for community engagement activities. Dr Meera Chakavarthy, Adjunct Professor, Jain University who served as the discussant for the session, summed up by saying that ‘All of us are responsible in one way or the other for achieving community engagement. It is equally essential for us to look at social justice issues as well.’ Dr Sridhar commented on the rigidity of the HEI framework, where there is no room for experimentation or innovation. He therefore, called for the need to make students step out of the classrooms, explore new vistas of engagement, and inculcate leadership qualities in them. He cited the example of Bangalore University, as a model one, which provides credit for NSS/NCC activities, which can be followed by other HEIs as well.

The second day of the conference opened with a session wholly dedicated to the student’s perspective on community engagement, and their experiences of the same. The session saw students from Jain University and St Joseph’s College, providing a brief account of the activities undertaken by them and their expectation from their respective colleges, universities. While they were engaged in good work, it was heartening to see that they looked forward to more support from their institutions and integration of this activity as part of the academic curriculum. They were also in favour of community engagement being made a compulsory part of their curricula, as one of the students put it, ‘There is nothing bad in making the students do some good out of compulsion’. This session was chaired by Ms. Bindu Subramanium, Director, Subramanium Academy for Performing Arts, Bengaluru. She too voiced her opinion in favour of having community engagement integrated across varied disciplines of study.

This was then followed by the third plenary session on ‘Policy Implications’, which was chaired by Dr Jayagopal Uchil, Director, Planning & Administration, Jain University. The speakers for the session included Professor Shireen Nedungadi, Principal, National College Bengaluru, Ms. Pinky Chandran, Coordinator, Radio Active, and Professor SS Meenakshisundaram, Vice-Chairperson, Myrada. Professor Nedungadi shared her views on how to make the syllabi a liitle more strengthening for community engagement. She shared that while Karnataka looked to transform itself into a knowledge society, we also need to pay heed to the issue of heterogeneity of identities, structures and institutions. She called for more freedom and flexibility in the designing of curriculum, which serves as the key instrument to help students move into the society. She also called for the need to integrate indigenous knowledge systems with elitist knowledge systems, and the cross-linkage among different streams of study. Ms. Chandran shared her experiences of Radio Active, a community radio station and gave a brief account on how they looked at integrating community voice, community campus partnerships and participatory research. She also spoke of their collaboration with various stakeholders and attempting to seek solutions to problems in a participatory manner. Professor Meenakshisundaram categorically called on the HEIs to take the reign into their hands and take the first step forward in integrating community engagement into the academic curriculum. He also emphasized the need to institutionalize synergize all efforts in one direction. Dr Shailaja Shastri, Professor, Jain University, who served as the discussant for the session emphasized on the need to be more solution oriented, in light of the issue at hand. She suggested certain concrete action points pertaining to the bringing about a change in the education system, for making it more facilitative towards community engagement, rather than restraining. She suggested the integration of engagement efforts by the provision of credits, recognizing the community engagement work done by the students who apply to universities, opportunities for budgeting research into teaching and learning, etc. She also called for sharing of resources between the universities and the communities, so that knowledge does not remain the premise of the former alone.

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Picture 1: Ms Pinky Chandran, Coodinator, RadioActive; Professor SS Meenakshisundaram, Vice-Chairperson, MYRADA; Dr Jayagopal Uchil, Director, Planning & Academics, Jain University; Professor Shireen Nedungadi, Principal, National College, Bengaluru (left to right)
The closing session of the conference, themed as ‘Ways forward’ aimed at seeking key answers to crucial questions and coming up with pertinent doable action points for every stakeholder in the future. The session began with an overview of the entire one and a half day event by Dr Rajani Jairam, Director, IQAC, Jain University, who precisely covered the key points which emerged from the discussions. The valedictory remark for the session was delivered by Mr BG Nandakumar, Commissioner of Collegiate Education, Government of Karnataka. As he represented the policy front at the event, he welcomed the ideas and novel initiative and promised all institutional support for similar activities in the future, and for a more detailed mapping of community engagement practices in the state. He stressed on the importance of higher education in shaping the society and therefore, credited this effort as being a great one in and in the right direction. He also looked forward to the recommendations that emerged from the event and pledged to include it in the state higher education policy. Concluding the event, Dr Rajesh Tandon briefed the participants with his closing thoughts and comments from what emerged out of the one and a half day deliberations. He shared that most importantly, we need to come out of the ‘We-They’ framework, and see the process as a bidirectional one. He also shared that the engagement process should cut across disciplines and not be limited or ghettoized into a couple of disciplines alone. He suggested the creation of a Community of Practice (CoP) in Bangalore, or an alliance of concerned stakeholders, who are interested in taking the movement forward. According to Dr Tandon, it was equally essential to create mechanisms for assessing the mutual impacts, which could the pave the way for mutual learning.

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