The objective of this paper is to bring together perspectives on community engagement in South African Higher Education in order to assist the National Research Foundation (NRF) in drawing up a programme for funding research in this area, to inform the further development of the Council on Higher Education’s (CHE) quality evaluation criteria for community engagement, and to contribute to the CHE’s advice to the Minister of Education on the appropriate place of community engagement in the national Higher Education system.
In shaping this enquiry, there are immediately apparent questions of scope and definition, such as what is meant by community, forms of knowledge transfer, the role of service learning and the relationship between community engagement on the one hand, and public higher education in the context of the developmental state, on the other. But there is also a simpler, and more puzzling, question. Community engagement is one of the three founding principles (along with teaching and research) of the post-apartheid reconstruction of South African Higher Education system, clearly captured in the 1997 White Paper on Higher Education. This was reviewed and affirmed as a priority in a series of comprehensive policy positions, and with a dedicated reporting criteria in the Higher Education Quality Committee’s (HEQC) audit requirements for all Higher Education institutions. Why, then, is the imperative of community engagement regarded as radical, risqué and anything other than taken-for-granted? That community engagement is so regarded suggests an epistemological ambiguity in the knowledge project of our universities – an ambiguity, the literature suggests, common with other higher education systems. In order to meet the brief of provoking discussion, this paper will attempt to touch this nerve, so as to see what happens.
The paragraphs that follow are informed by – and have benefitted considerably from – the contributions made at a workshop convened jointly by the NRF and the CHE in August 2008. These perspectives often emerged collectively and a full list of participants is provided as Appendix A. In particular, the paper is informed by the presentation made to the workshop by Dr Lis Lange of the CHE. In considering how best to augment these and other contributions to the widening debate, it is necessary to explore the ways in which both community and engagement are understood.
Community can, and does, mean anything from a university’s own staff and students and a community of practice to civic organisations, schools, townships, citizens at large and “the people” in general. Engagement is an equally challenging concept that, when interrogated, opens up a rich vein of inquiry into the nature of knowledge itself. Interpreting the brief in this way continues the lead taken in the August 2008 workshop, addresses the ambiguities that have rendered community engagement the orphan of South African Higher Education policy for more than a decade and opens doors for continuing debate.