Report-back on UP’s Senate Conference 2024

Posted on February 23, 2024

This year, UP’s Senate Conference focused on curricular community engagement and fostering societal transformation through education.

The University of Pretoria's (UP) annual Senate Conference, held under the theme ‘Teaching with impact: Advancing curricular community engagement for societal transformation’, underscored UP’s dedication to fostering an integrated academic framework. Building on the previous year’s theme of ‘Turning the tide: curriculum transformation at UP’, this year, the topic of curricular community engagement (CCE) was at the forefront of discussions. CCE is defined as the deliberate application of resources and expertise in teaching, learning and research to achieve mutually beneficial outcomes that are consistent with UP’s vision and mission.

Delegates – which included members of the Executive, deans, deputy deans, heads of department, directors and SRC representatives – convened at the Future Africa Institute to participate in the conference.

“It is accepted globally that universities have obligations to society, and that their knowledge production, scholarship and teaching activities should be designed to be of service to society,” Professor Themba Mosia, UP Interim Vice-Chancellor and Principal, said. “For this reason, the post-apartheid higher education policies in South Africa require universities to be responsive to the needs of the towns and regions in which they are located, and ultimately responsive to national interests. Universities are called upon to demonstrate social responsibility and commitment to the common good by making available expertise and infrastructure for community engagement programmes.”

Prof Mosia added that universities have responded to this requirement by including in their mission statements declarations of intent to engage with communities. This intent is expressed through terms such as “the engaged university”, “the anchor university”, “engaged scholarship”, “responsive higher education”, “social responsibility and commitment”, “community service”, “community engagement”, “service learning” and “social impact”. In fact, a study of the vision and/or mission statements of universities in South Africa, undertaken in 2021, revealed that 25 out of 26 public universities include these terms or their variants.

Prof Mosia highlighted that almost all universities in South Africa have declared in their vision and mission statements that community service, community engagement or scholarship of engagement constituted their third core function area. By and in large, it was found that most universities are doing very little, if anything, to engage with and support communities.

“It pleases me that the situation at UP is different, as the institution strives to pursue what it has stated in its vision and mission statement in terms of being of value to communities,” Prof Mosia said. “Through its Strategic Plan 2022 – 2026, the University made a conscious decision to embed community engagement in its curricula, understanding that curricular lies at the centre of the delivery of higher education to students, who constitute a vehicle for change. Accordingly, the University formally adopted CCE as an institutional strategy for teaching and learning.”

Prof added that in South Africa, community engagement holds significance in the higher education transformation agenda. Universities recognise its pivotal role in reshaping the principles of higher education to serve humanity and in nurturing graduates who possess a strong sense of social accountability. For UP, CCE provides students with hands-on, real-world experiences that complement their theoretical knowledge. It is experiential learning that not only deepens understanding but also equips students with practical skills that are essential for their future careers.

“Additionally, it helps to build sustainable partnerships, cultivates critical thinking and reflective practice, and in an increasingly interconnected world, it contributes to the development of globally minded citizens, because exposure to diverse communities fosters cultural awareness, empathy and a broader perspective on global issues,” Prof Mosia added.

Also, embedding community engagement in curricula fosters civic responsibility among students and staff. Direct involvement in community projects enables students and staff to develop a deeper understanding of societal issues and motivates them to contribute meaningfully to their communities.

Prof Loretta Feris, UP Vice-Principal for Academics, said CCE is already integrated into UP’s curriculum.

“Our approach is that every student must do CCE in at least one of their modules in their study programme. Last year, for example, 24357 students completed a compulsory CCE module. We are at a point in time where we are pausing and reflecting on our approach to curricular community engagement at UP. We have already committed ourselves to utilise an approach of transdisciplinarity as a mechanism through which we can contribute to solving the array of complex problems we are currently faced with, such as ever-deepening inequality and poverty, climate change and deep-seated global conflict.”

- Author James Mahlokwane

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