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Community engagement is critical for higher education institutions

Author: Professor Priscilla Daniels

The UWC Community Engagement Unit will present a colloquium from October 29 to 30

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(Published - 28 October 2019)

Universities are generally still considered ivory towers – devoid of reality, existing in a paradigm of academia. Since its inception, almost exactly 60 years ago, the University of the Western Cape (UWC) flung the doors of learning open to not only students, but to the communities it serves. Creating synergy between academia and society is critical for progress and social upliftment. To develop the campus and strategically influence the growth and development of its surrounding areas is a core, strategic function of UWC. The University’s Community Engagement Unit (CEU) was formed to facilitate and coordinate community engagement (CE) activities which include outreach, service-learning, community-based education and volunteerism, among other things. The unit is supported by Professor Vivienne Lawack, UWC Deputy Vice-Chancellor: Academic.

On October 29 and 30 the Unit will present a colloquium to facilitate critical dialogue between partners, academics and students conducting CE projects. The inaugural colloquium took place in 2017 with Prof Lawack highlighting that this was an opportunity to reflect on what it means to be an engaged institution. She noted that it is impossible to evolve and put plans in place for a romanticised vision of 2030 without understanding who we are. Furious debate is taking place about the transformation of the curriculum and decolonisation, but to address these, it is key to engage with communities.

“We have to make the community part of our whole research project, so it can be sustainable even when we are no longer there with them,” Prof Lawack said at the time.

There is a growing commitment at UWC towards the scholarship of engagement. This has evolved through participation in several partnership projects, as well as in the various community-based curricular activities. These partnership projects employ different CE strategies - among them community-based education, problem-based learning and service-learning. The first colloquium resulted in the development of principles of CE, while the second colloquium extended these principles into the development of a Charter of Community Engagement Principles. The event, therefore, provides a space for faculties and departments to showcase their CE activities and demonstrate how they are infused in learning and teaching, as well as research. It also allows a space for dialogue and critical discussions around what the scholarship of community engagement is at UWC and how it feeds into both the national CE agenda in higher education, and the National Development Plan.

UWC’s CEU runs a host of initiatives, including the Substance Abuse Project in partnership with the Western Cape Provincial Government. It is aimed at developing the capacity of community workers, lay counsellors, health care workers, religious leaders and even sports coaches. The Community Engagement Unit also offers a course based on the awareness of Fetal Alcohol Syndrome and the impact of prenatal drinking. Additionally, CEU hosts a resource centre which contains an abundance of academic material on CE and service-learning.

This year’s colloquium will take place at the Faculty of Community and Health Sciences in the heart of the community in the Bellville Central Business District. The colloquium is also preceded by a pre-colloquium engagement workshop facilitated by Professor Hester Julie. This workshop is part of an NRF-sponsored research project with the aim of exploring the concept of “Community Engaged Teaching and Learning” (CETL) in higher education in South Africa. The project has four distinct foci, namely, developing a description of CETL; determining the theoretical grounding and practice of CETL; determining how CETL is supported in Higher Education Institutions (HEIs), and exploring the challenges of scholars in CETL and their needs for capacity building.

The theme of the 2019 Community Engagement Colloquium is: “Finding the synergy between CE, Research, Teaching and Learning in the context of the 4th Industrial Revolution”. On the first day, the key themes are CE in the Fourth Industrial Revolution and facilitating sustainable leadership in communities. On the second day, the themes will centre around CE using digital technology, and ethics regarding CE in the 21st Century. The keynote speakers include Professor Cornelius Thomas from Rhodes University and UWC’s award-winning Dr Fanelwa Ngece-Ajayi, who will be setting the scene for vibrant critical engagement at the colloquium.

Professor Daniels is the Director of the Community Engagement Unit at the University of the Western Cape. She is also a board member of the South African High Education Community Engagement Forum. ​​

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