‘Universities are required to contribute in a much more intentional manner to the development and transformation of society’

Posted on July 16, 2020

Professor Norman Duncan, Vice-Principal: Academic, chats to Tukkievaria about UP’s commitment to community engagement.

As part of Mandela Day on 18 July, companies and individuals around the country participate in 67 minutes of community outreach. Surely community outreach/social responsibility should become a way of life? Primarashni Gower speaks to Professor Norman Duncan, Vice-Principal: Academic, whose portfolio covers University Social Responsibility.

PG: Can you explain what exactly the concepts “social responsibility” and “community engagement” entail?

ND: University Social Responsibility refers to efforts by universities to make a transformative and positive difference to the socio-economic realities and development of the communities, the regions in which they are located as well as the world more generally.

For many years, the value of universities was largely located in their research, teaching and learning functions. However, recent years have seen an increasing shift in the expectations of these institutions. Indeed, as the University Social Responsibility Network observes, the rapidly changing world in which universities operate as well as the many seemingly intractable problems faced by society globally – such as the current COVID-19 pandemic, increasing levels of inequality, poorly managed health problems, widespread malnutrition and escalating levels of unemployment or under-employment – require of universities to contribute in a much more intentional manner to the development and transformation of society. This is not only through teaching, learning and knowledge generation, but also through the integration of social responsibility into institutional management, teaching, research, services and public activities.

PG: Tell us about UP’s involvement in social responsibility.

ND: UP is committed to advancing social responsibility in its institutional management, teaching and learning, and research. This is evident in its teaching and learning strategies, research foci (including the focus on the UN’s SDGs) and facilities management – this includes the university’s greening, recycling and alternative-energy initiatives. UP is the only African university that is a member of the University Social Responsibility Network (USRN), an international group of 15 highly rated universities. It is also a member of the Talloires Network, another association committed to the social responsibility of universities, beyond their traditional functions of research, and teaching and learning.

UP has given substance to its commitment to social responsibility over the past 20 years through a range of community engagement projects. Most of these form part of the students’ formal course requirements. Some are non-curricular or voluntary. During 2019, more than 29 000 undergraduate students were involved in curricular and non-curricular community engagement projects at more than 1 000 sites.

Community engagement is not only key to the university’s pursuit of its social responsibility ideals. It is also a key pillar of UP’s hybrid approach to teaching and learning, which includes teaching and learning in class, online and in community settings. The university is committed to pursuing this approach, not only because it is viewed as the most effective means of ensuring student success both prior to and following graduation, but also because it embodies a powerful way of enabling students to learn the value of social solidarity, social justice and community.

PG: How are projects woven into the curriculum and what are the benefits for students and communities?

ND: One of the premises on which UP’s community engagement programmes are based is that the education that is afforded to our students gives them access to the skills, attributes and substantive freedoms – see the writings of Indian economist and philosoper Amartya Sen, for example – that enable them not only to fulfil their career aspirations and to lead more actualised lives, but also to contribute to the life chances of others who do not yet have the opportunities they have. 

Another premise is that our students’ collaboration with communities beyond our university campuses offers them essential knowledge and skills that they would not otherwise acquire. The university’s community engagement programmes are considered core to teaching and learning as well as research at UP.

All faculties are involved in community engagement. The extent and nature of their involvement vary depending on the programmes offered. Professional or accrediting bodies may mandate curricular community engagement and development, or it is simply an integral part of community-based learning and practical work modules. In a significant number of cases involvement in community engagement is voluntary.

PG: UP’s Random Acts of Kindness campaign also falls within your portfolio. Tell us more about this.

ND: We had initiated the Random Acts of Kindness campaign in 2019 as a means to engender greater levels of caring and social cohesion within the university community.

Over the past decade or two, kindness has become an object of ongoing study in psychology. It has been argued that historically, kindness, altruism and compassion served the important function of ensuring the survival of human communities, especially in situations of threat. Interestingly, recent empirical research in positive psychology has found that the expression of these attributes, in addition to their assumed survival function, fulfil a range of other psychological functions for the individual as well. For example, it has been found that acts of kindness frequently result in stress reduction, decreased levels of depression, a heightened sense of personal well-being, an improved sense of self and better physical health. So being kind to others is being kind to oneself.

- Author Primarashni Gower

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