The University of Pretoria (UP) and the University Social Responsibility Network (USRN) are hosting an international online summit from 3-5 February 2021 at UP’s Future Africa campus. The theme is ‘University Social Responsibility: Priorities for the Next Decade’.
The USRN, which was established in 2015, comprises 16 members including Peking University, China; Simon Fraser University, Canada; Hong Kong Polytechnic University; University of Manchester, United Kingdom; and UP, which is the only African university that is part of the network. According to Professor Norman Duncan, Vice-Principal: Academic at UP, the USRN views university social responsibility as “extending the traditional mission of universities in an endeavour to develop solutions for economic, social, and environmental problems in society”.
The Summit is held biennially to allow university academics, researchers and practitioners a forum to assess the progress made by partner universities in respect of their social responsibility endeavours. “The Summit provides an important opportunity for partners to sharpen their understanding of university social responsibility at the levels of theory, research and practice and to develop collaborative USR projects with varied scopes and scales within the Network,” said Prof Duncan. It also provides an opportunity for the USRN to have its biennial general meeting.
He explained that every alternate year, the USRN member institutions take turns to hold the international USR Summit. In the past, the international USR Summit has attracted over 200 university presidents, senior administrators, professors and students from 52 institutions in 12 countries.
UP art students working at Moja Gabedi, the University's transdisciplinary community engagement project in Hatfield.
UP’s broad definition of university social responsibility entails the programmatic, values-driven practices and processes embarked on by universities to make a difference to the social and economic well-being of the communities in which they are located and serve; as well as broader society through their teaching, research, and community engagement and service activities.
UP’s extensive community engagement programme entails more than 1 000 community projects involving more than 26 000 students annually. Additionally, the University has for several years managed a comprehensive environmental sustainability (greening) programme (managed by the Department of Facilities Management) and an urban renewal and social transformation project. These three overlapping initiatives constitute the primary vehicles through which the University endeavours to give substance to its commitment to the notion and ideals of university social responsibility. “In the first instance, universities have an obligation to the social institutions and communities that support and are the raison d’être of their existence.
“One of the premises on which UP’s community engagement and development programme is based is that the education that is afforded our students gives them access to the skills, attributes and substantive freedoms (with reference to Amartya Sen). This enables them not only to fulfil their career aspirations and to lead more actualised lives, but also to contribute to the life chances of others in our world who do not yet have the opportunities that they have,” said Prof Duncan.
Another premise on which the community engagement and development programme is based at UP is that its collaboration with communities beyond the University campuses offers students essential knowledge and skills that they would not otherwise acquire. “For this reason, the University’s community engagement is considered to be core to teaching and learning as well as research at the University of Pretoria.”
Moja Gabedi serves as a therapy garden where free occupational therapy, and art and wellness therapies are offered to the homeless, old age homes and children from the area.
Prof Duncan refers to Craig Mahoney, Vice-Chancellor of the University of the West of Scotland, as saying “universities cannot be sustainable without being socially responsible”.
He explained that at UP all faculties are involved in community engagement and development. “Of course, the extent and nature of their involvement vary, depending on the programmes offered by these faculties. Curricular community engagement may be mandated by professional or accrediting bodies (like the South African Council for Social Services Professions, the Engineering Council of South Africa and the Health Professions Council of South Africa), 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 and development is voluntary.” Most of the University’s community engagement initiatives are located within socio-economically marginalised and underserved communities.
One such initiative is Moja Gabedi – a transdisciplinary community engagement project that has transformed a neglected piece of land in Hatfield, Pretoria, into a meaningful space where students, from all nine of the University’s faculties (while working with community members including homeless people), can get real-world experience while making a difference in the lives of those who need their knowledge and skills. Moja Gabedi serves as a therapy garden where occupational therapy, and art and wellness therapies are offered to the homeless, old age homes and children from the area at no cost.
The land also provides space for people from the area to cultivate small kitchen gardens for the purpose of food security. The establishment and development of Moja Gabedi involved members of various parts of the community of Hatfield and this has impacted positively on residents and businesses, reducing crime and criminal activity and bringing a vibrant atmosphere to the area.
Occupational health students are among the UP students from all nine of the University’s faculties that get real-world experience at Moja Gabedi while making a difference in the lives of those who need their knowledge and skills.
“Working at Moja Gabedi reminded me of how important it is to be in touch with the community that surrounds us, if not, there is no way we can truly apply our skills to help improve the community,” said UP student Vangile Mabizela, one of the students involved in the community engagement project.
Abigail Shongwe agreed that her experience at the project emphasised the importance of being “responsible citizens who will create change in our communities”.
“Building the walkway was an amazing experience which really taught me the importance of teamwork, having a learning spirit and working hard to get good results,” she added.
Register for the summit here.