By Sam van Heerden, master’s student in philosophy
In a world facing many global challenges amid faltering leadership, bottom-up community projects are often the humble heralds of social change. But their central role is often overlooked. That was the sentiment shared at the Rhodes University Community Engagement Symposium (RUCE) on Thursday. In collaboration with Durban University of Technology (DUT), the three-day conference was held online and in person (hybrid) at the Amazwi South African Literature Museum.
The conference discussed the role of community engagement in social change, the possibilities offered by service learning, its status at university and national level, and the importance of parental engagement in children’s learning. academics.
The coordinator of the RUCE research group, Claire McCann, asked: “How do we start to conceptualize a university sensitive to the problems of the 21st century? She explained that universities are increasingly run like businesses, primarily concerned with private returns for the individual student. But addressing global challenges such as climate change, inequality, poverty and pandemics is not enough.
RUCE Director Di Hornby and Dr Margie Maistry of DUT DUT implored a higher education system rooted in a deep sense of humanity. It encourages students to lead an ethical life of personal growth for the greater good of society. While the change may seem difficult to understand, McCann believes that volunteering can play a role in transforming the university into a university for the public good. “Community engagement can help develop graduates who are not only prepared for the job market, but who are ready to change their world,” she said.
As one of the core functions of Rhodes University, community engagement manifests itself in the forms of volunteerism, service learning and engaged research. Service learning involves combining disciplinary knowledge with practical projects that are mutually beneficial to students and the community. From journalism students helping download learning resources on easily transportable and accessible flash disks for academics and their parents to pharmacy students helping to create disinfectant for the community during the pandemic, Rhodes University has furthermore in addition tried to incorporate meaningful work into the program.
“[Service learning] is about bringing humanism and citizenship back into our system, ”said RUCE researcher Dr Joana Bezerra. She said citizenship is about participation in public life and service learning can encourage it. Nigel Machiha, a student at Rhodes University, said: “Community engagement provides an environment in which students can exercise their social responsibility. He said community engagement could help promote the decolonization of universities. He said programs such as the Nine Tenths Matric mentoring program, which has seen Makhanda move from one of the worst performing cities in terms of matrix outcomes to the best performing city in the Eastern Cape, could help eliminate obstacles to higher education.
Phakamani Pungu-Pungu, a student at Nelson Mandela University, said: “Schools are part of a community and [it needs to work together]. “He said the lack of adequate teachers in public schools in South Africa cripples an already fragile education system.” Schools need to work with the community and other organizations such as higher education institutions, to promote community building and solve community problems, ”he said.
Deputy Vice Chancellor for Research and Innovation Dr Peter Clayton explained that community engagement is not included in the government’s funding package. “Engaged research, which involves working collaboratively with communities to impact change and generate knowledge, often goes a long way. It’s hard to show lasting [changes] in a short period of time, ”said Dr Clayton. He added that funding is increasingly determined by number games: number of citations, posts, etc. But social change can be difficult to quantify.
“Universities are meant to be for the public good, and their impacts should be felt beyond the confines of the university,” concluded Dr Clayton.
The conclusion of the symposium underlined the urgency for higher education institutions to reflect on and reinvent the purpose of higher education in light of the disruptions and resulting changes caused by the Covid 19 pandemic. Train students in a career only in the dominant context of the knowledge economy is no longer feasible or sufficient. Students are potential leaders of society and educating them as full human beings and cultivating humanity must become the reimagined goal of higher education. The participation and presentation of the students at the symposium clearly demonstrated their leadership capacity and their potential to be human and socially just leaders of the future. Community engagement has the potential to play a key role in reimagining higher education institutions through its link with teaching and research. Unfortunately, community engagement is still positioned on the periphery of most universities in South Africa. As a collective, university leaders in South Africa have a responsibility to effect change by placing community engagement at the center of its functions and its reimagined purpose.
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