However, this important pillar is often an afterthought rather than a key focus for universities.
“In the South African higher education context, Community Engagement is an expressed requirement from a regulatory perspective, and for good reason. Because if done right, not only does it benefit the community, but it also strengthens the institution,” says Dr Franzél Du Plooy-Cilliers, Dean: Accreditation and Quality Assurance at The Independent Institute of Education.
Engaging with the community allows universities to develop relationships and foster collaboration, and it has a positive impact on student learning and developing their sense of civic responsibility, she says.
“Students who are exposed to community engagement activities develop a deeper understanding of the challenges facing their community and gain valuable real-world experience. Community engagement can also encourage diversity and inclusion by exposing students to people and cultures different from their own, fostering empathy and understanding”.
“This experience often helps students better understand the complexities of social issues and how to address them, making them better equipped to become responsible citizens and leaders,” says Du Plooy-Cilliers.
Another key benefit of community engagement is that it helps universities build and maintain strong relationships. By being active and engaged members of the community, institutions demonstrate their commitment to transformation and the greater good, as well as establish trust and credibility.
This can lead to increased opportunities for partnerships, internships, and research collaborations, all of which can have a significant impact on not only the higher education provider’s success, but the community too.
“Higher education institutions have long played a critical role in fostering public engagement by serving as key anchors in their communities. However, the way institutions engage with their communities is evolving as more meaningful and impactful forms of community engagement are sought,” notes Du Plooy-Cilliers.
It is however a pity that community engagement and what this means in practice is often misinterpreted and misunderstood by those responsible to drive such initiatives, she says.
“At its core, meaningful and impactful community engagement in higher education is about fostering mutually beneficial partnerships between the institution and its community. This involves working collaboratively with community organisations, non-profit organisations, NGOs and the like to address pressing social issues, such as poverty, inequality, and environmental sustainability,” says Du Plooy-Cilliers.
One example of this type of community engagement is the establishment of service-learning programs. Service learning provides students with the opportunity to engage in community-based projects that align with their academic coursework.
“Through this approach, students are able to apply their programme knowledge to real-world challenges, while also developing a deeper understanding of the needs and concerns of their local communities. Community engagement can therefore improve student learning outcomes by providing opportunities for hands-on learning, critical thinking, and problem-solving.”
Another example is the creation of community-based research initiatives. These initiatives involve faculty and students collaborating with community organisations to conduct research that is relevant to local communities.
“This approach not only provides valuable insights and data to communities, but also provides students with the opportunity to develop research skills while making a tangible impact in their communities,” Du Plooy-Cilliers says.
Beyond service-learning and community-based research, there is a range of other initiatives that universities can undertake to foster meaningful and impactful community engagement. These might include hosting community events, partnering with local businesses to promote economic development, or supporting local arts and cultural programs.
However, for community engagement to truly be meaningful and impactful, it must be grounded in a deep commitment to listening to and learning from the community.
“This means engaging in dialogue and collaboration with community partners to identify their needs and priorities and developing initiatives responsive to these concerns. And above all, it must be sustainable."
"Once-off initiatives that, for example, simply involve the donation of used IT equipment to a school are beneficial and not discouraged, but they do not reflect the true spirit of meaningful community engagement, unless ICT students are required to, for example, maintain such equipment on an ongoing basis by applying and developing their own skills in this way.”
Meaningful, sustainable, and impactful community engagement is therefore a critical aspect of higher education in the 21st Century, says Du Plooy-Cilliers.
“By working collaboratively with their communities, institutions can foster deeper connections with the people and places around them, while also contributing to the greater good for all involved. As we look to the future, higher education institutions must continue to prioritise, develop best practices, and invest in this important aspect for meaningful, sustainable, and impactful higher education.”