Develop responsible students through engaged research and community partnerships

 

 

COMMENT

The University of Pretoria (UP) designated October as the month of social responsibility. The aim was to raise awareness about the positive work achieved by universities through social responsibility and community partnerships. These projects and programmes mobilise the expertise and resources of universities to address the myriad challenges facing our society.

At the same time it is about educating students to be socially responsive, active citizens and leaders working for positive change. A university education needs to be focused on knowledge as a catalyst for social, environmental and economic innovation and change for the benefit of the whole society. Several universities in South Africa stand out for this.

At UP, 30 000 of our students this year — 45% of our total number of students — are directly involved in community projects and practical work as part of their curriculum. And more than 126 of our student organisations are involved in voluntary social responsibility projects.

One of the projects in which several of our disciplines are involved is Pathways Out of Homelessness. Our researchers and partners are doing research with homeless people in Pretoria’s inner city suburbs to understand their complex realities. The research is designed to improve policy, budget and practices in dealing with the growing problem of homelessness.

It’s called engaged research because it is not conducted about people, it is conducted with them. In this project, current and formerly homeless people, including students, older people and those afflicted with mental illness, are research participants and fieldworkers. They receive training and are paid. They collect and interpret the data with our researchers.

Community engagement and social responsibility is not an “add on”; it is a core role and responsibility of higher education. European Union and Asian countries made legal provision in 2015 that all universities in member countries have to be involved in community engagement, and they regard UP as a world leader in this approach and seek out the university’s experience. Currently, UP is the only African university on the global University Social Responsiveness Network — an international group of the top 15 universities in the world in this field — and is represented on the Talloires Network: international associations of universities committed to strengthening the civic roles and social responsibilities of higher education.

The QS World University Rankings recognise the importance of this, and have developed the QS Stars rating to advance an empirical understanding of community engagement and social responsibility, and how universities can and should be implementing actionable progress. The QS Report states that social responsibility is best understood as the idea that organisations, institutions and individuals have an obligation to act for the benefit of society.

The University of Pretoria sees itself as an anchor institution in its communities, with a direct effect on the local economy, the safety and security, wellbeing and sustainability of our people and environment.

For example, Viva Village in Mamelodi’s Alaska township is a multi- and transdisciplinary community engagement hub in which all faculties are involved, including psychology, social work, geology, engineering, health sciences (medicine, nursing, occupational therapy, physiotherapy, nutrition and radiology). They work together with residents, healthcare workers and clinics to provide a holistic service. The same is done in Zama-Zama and Plastic View informal settlements, and at the Pop-Up Clinic of Salvokop. The faculties identify common health issues and address these — from improving hearing through the 3D-printed middle ear transplants innovated at UP to addiction treatment, sustainable agriculture and affordable nutrition.

The university has several programmes with high schools in disadvantaged areas to ensure that greater numbers of matrics can attend higher education institutions. UP’s students contribute to this through the Tuks Leadership and Individual Programme. This is a student-run, nonprofit initiative that works with promising learners from four under-resourced Pretoria schools. The primary goal is to get them into a tertiary institution. The initiative has a five-tier programme that involves learners during their entire high school career. The five areas are: leadership development and mentorship; academic support and tutoring; financial education and bursary support; human development, as well as application support.

In addition, veterinary students are involved in rural vaccination stations; occupational therapy students work with parents and toddlers on the importance of play in children’s development, not only as toddlers but also for their future when they go to school.

The university has some of the brightest minds using their skills to find solutions for society’s problems and to advance new ways of being. They are committed to social justice and sustainable growth; to Earth-friendly initiatives that give back to the planet. The university is acutely aware that people’s actions today have a ripple effect on our collective wellbeing and future.

Professor Tawana Kupe is the vice-chancellor of the University of Pretoria

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