Boni, Alejandra (2017). 'Exploring relations between community and universities that expand capabilities. Insights from three case studies in South Africa, Argentina and UK.' Paper presented at the annual conference of the HDCA, Cape Town 2017.


In this panel we want to engage with the main topic of this conference: challenging inequalities and promoting human development and social change. We want to do this by reflecting on how universities can engage with communities in their teaching and researching activities. In this engagement, we argue that learning processes can enhance relevant capabilities and agency among students, staff and community members. Also, we claim that research outputs, produced though a horizontal and equivalent partnership, can bring relevant knowledge to address the concerns shared by community members.

We understand community as a totality that is meaningful to the people that form part of it. Community is more than a geographic concentration; it is related to social support, inter-subjectivity, participation, consensus, common beliefs, joint effort aiming at a major objective and intense and extensive relationship (Tonon, 2016).

From the other side, our understanding of the role of the university is beyond the formation of human capital for the economic growth of a country. We argue that university education could, and ought to, fulfil other transformative objectives. As highlighted by the group of experts for the Task Force on Higher Education and Society (2000), higher education contributes to the strengthening of civil society and to stimulating democratic governance through the generation of public assets for society, such as new knowledge and secure spaces for the open exchange of ideas about the values that define development. We are aware that universities can and do undoubtedly contribute to social reproduction (and hence the current unfair global arrangements and unequal societies), but they also open spaces for public-good values formation and public-good contributions through the critical and emancipatory power of knowledge and reason, the usefulness of knowledge for society and equality, citizenship and democracy (Boni and Walker, 2016).

The panel will highlight the potential of those kinds of university spaces bringing examples of the Global South (Argentina and South Africa) and the Global North (United Kingdom). We consider important to explore new juxtapositions between the global North and global South, integrating the global and the local across these perspectives, and developing a distinctive, in-depth conceptual and empirical understanding of the challenges faced. We do not assume a powerful global North with uniformly well-off populations and high quality universities, or a weak global South with uniformly poor people or low quality universities. Our case study countries of Argentina, South Africa and United Kingdom problematize this assumption.

The first contribution by Graciela Tonon will present the experience of UNI-COM, a Social Research Institute at the Faculty of Social Sciences of Universidad Nacional de Lomas de Zamora, Argentina. UNI-COM, established in 2011, is a center doing training and research relevant to the needs of communities. It also promotes conferences and publications to disseminate outputs generated through its activities (Tonon, 2012). Applying the capability approach, Tonon will highlight how UNI-COM’s activities are expanding the capabilities of the different actors involved.

The second contribution by Boni, Frediani and Lira, will present the results of research conducted in London (UK) to explore a four-month action learning experience between three actors: 1) the MSc Social Development Practice (a Masters programme in The Bartlett Development Planning Unit, University College London), Citizens UK (a UK charity devoted to community enhancement) and 8 schools in different London neighbourhoods. The research shows that through the action learning experience the different actors involved are able to gain a sense of engagement around social issues, which can develop collective consciousness as change makers. This engagement is especially relevant for the SDP Master students, who are developing several capabilities related to the action learning experience.

Their research also identifies potential obstacles to this kind of initiative, which are related to structural constraints. These come from university regulations that fail to recognise the demands of achieving social impact, despite the increasing priority placed on ‘impact’ by research funders. However, the research shows that relationships based on trust and collaborative attitudes go some way toward overcoming those obstacles.

The third contribution from Merridy Wilson-Strydom makes the case that one of the potentially overlooked ways in which universities can foster capabilities beyond their borders is through more explicitly recognizing that their students are embedded in communities in multiple ways and so provide an important and authentic link between the university and communities in a manner that potentially breaks down the bounded understanding of both the university and the community. Her research is located in Bloemfontein (South Africa) and has been developed during an ongoing longitudinal, participatory research project with students from marginalized backgrounds (2014 to the present). She will highlight how by fostering on-campus communities among students outside of the formal curriculum and across disciplinary boundaries, universities can indirectly build capabilities for social change in the communities from which students come.

The three presentations will conclude by engaging with a relevant theoretical contribution made by Robeyns in her paper Capabilitarianism published in 2016. Through the three different cases, we will explore the relevance of Robeyns’ proposal for empirical applications in the higher education domain. Specifically, we will reflect on the list of core elements of the capability approach within the context of Robeyn’s cartwheel view that sets out various additional elements making up capabilitarianism. We will discuss to what extent these elements have been useful in our analyses and how they can boost research committed to social change and human development.


Boni, A. And M. Walker (2016) Universities and Global Human Development, Theoretical and empirical insights for social change, London: Routledge.

Robeyns, I. (2016) Capabilitarianism, Journal of Human Development and Capabilities, 17:3, 397-414.

Task Force on Higher Education and Society.2000. Higher Education in Developing Countries. New York: World Bank.

Tonon, G. (2012) Las relaciones universidad-comunidad: un espacio de reconfiguración de lo público. Polis 32. Universidad Bolivariana de Chile. pp.1-8

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