Unisa reaches out to others

Unisa’s commitment to community engagement is paying off — it has created a directorate for community engagement in the academic planning office and the university’s work on a comprehensive policy has started to filter through to academics who must integrate it into their core academic activities.

The Council on Higher Education, in its quality audit of the institution, which was conducted in 2008 but has just been released, says that although community engagement ‘has been neglected as a formal system in the university”, it appreciates the efforts the institution was making at the time of the audit to overhaul its work in that area.

Individual institutional audits have shown repeatedly that most institutions of higher education struggle to embrace community engagement as part of their academic work. Unisa is finding its own answers to the what and how of community engagement.

Recently Valiant Clapper, executive dean and head of Unisa’s college of economic and management sciences, addressed about 40 academics, students and administrative staff members at a workshop on the topic.

The event was underpinned by questions such as: What is community engagement in a higher education environment?

Can the offering of classes at schools or prisons or the donation of paper to a crèche be seen as community engagement, community outreach or charity?

When can it be part of an individual’s social responsibility as a member of a specific community and when is it relevant enough to be judged as community engagement in an academic environment?

‘The group investigated the relationship between community engagement, research, tuition and academic citizenship and how this relates to the key performance areas and continued development of staff members at different levels,” says Clapper.

Neil Eccles, head of Unisa’s centre for corporate citizenship, suggested four questions to determine whether a project qualified as community engagement:

Who is the community?

How does the engagement take place?

How does the engagement inform and improve the institution’s tuition, research or academic subject knowledge?

How does the community benefit from the activities (in other words, what are the developmental outcomes)?

With the discussions as a basis, the college has also decided to use the United Nation’s Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) as a framework and anchor for community engagement projects.

The first step is to develop a measurement and monitoring tool to assess the college’s existing contribution to the goals.

Staff will then be encouraged to transform their community engagement projects into collaborative and individual research projects with a specific focus on policy research.

Feedback on progress and outcomes will take place at the World Economic Forum in 2011 and 2012 through the MDG-related non-governmental group, Young Global Leaders.

More than 20 projects have been registered so far. These include four projects by the college’s Economic and Management Sciences Student Association.

Other projects include financial literacy programmes conducted by the department of taxation, the establishment of a personal finance research unit, a multilingual terminology database for mathematical and related sciences by the department of decision sciences and initiatives to assist policymakers and educators in teaching consumers to become financially literate.

‘This is just the beginning but hopefully this will lead to meaningful engagement with the college’s communities that result in lasting mutual benefit to both the community and the college,” says Clapper.

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