“Practitioners of community engagement in universities can also misbehave, unless rigorous standards of quality are established and enforced”, thus spoke Prof Darren of Durban Institute of Technology in a seminar at PRIA last week. His presentation centred around the challenge of ensuring quality in community engagement as this field gains great popularity internationally.
Several national accreditation frameworks (like the NAAC in India) have a component of community engagement in assessing institutions. But what constitutes a high quality engagement is not clearly articulated. What is most troublesome is looking at engagement as a mutually beneficial effort that serves the needs and interests of the community and university. Most service learning forms of student engagement tend to focus on benefits to the community, as defined by the university. Most community-university research partnerships tend to be academically defined and controlled. Such unilateralism does not generate high quality engagement outcomes for both parties.
In this context, greater national push for participating in global rankings tends to negate efforts at local relevance. As one delegate mentioned, “rankings can be a serious distractions from local initiatives”. Engagement requires long-term commitment, without which its quality suffers. Students have short-term orientations, and tend to move on after course requirement is over. One of the ways in which universities can address this challenge is to create interface structures that mediate relations with community across faculty and disciplines.
National and provincial networks for community engagement can support efforts at quality enhancement. Forum for Community Engagement in Higher Education in South Africa is one such mechanism. In Canada, CUExpo, a bi-annual gathering of practitioners of community engagement, tends to support such quality deliberations. While the 12th Five Year Plan of Government of India argues for Social Responsibility in Higher Education, its suggestion for setting up an Association for Community Engagement (ACE) is yet to be realised.
As the promise of strengthening community engagement in higher education begins to be translated in practice in different socio-political contexts, it is critical that attention is paid to issues of quality, its capacitation and monitoring. Acceptance and impacts of community engagement in higher education will be much higher if quality assurance mechanisms are in place.
Rajesh Tandon February 8, 2016