University and community relations: analysis of the community engagement of UFS from the capability approach

Monge, Carmen (2016). 'University and community relations: analysis of the community engagement of UFS from the capability approach' Paper presented at the annual conference of the HDCA, Tokyo 2016.

In Southern countries, there are substantive experiences of integration of the university with the community, through community engagement. Such is the case of the University of the Free State (UFS), which managed to curricularise community engagement (CE) by incorporating service learning (SL) into their degree programmes in 1997. Public universities take on challenges to overcome the demanding task of consolidating of the third function and tackling financing constraints, excessive managerialism, competitiveness and the institutional culture of the non-recognition of work with communities and budget allocation. For this to be possible, new research explaining how EC contributes to society must be produced.
This paper presents the results of research conducted in the second semester of 2015, with the aim of understanding the contribution made by the CE of the UFS, with the aid of the capabilities approach. This research is of a descriptive and explanatory nature, based on the review of secondary sources and the application of two qualitative techniques, interviews and participatory observation. Special emphasis was given to the social information provided by primary and secondary sources, taking the SL activities of the Bloemfontein Campus as a case study. A documentary review of UFS policy, annual CE reports and strategic plans was made; this was contrasted with the voices of the actors involved and participatory observation on campus and in the field. The objective was to understand, from the capabilities approach, how CE generates institutional changes that favour those involved and explore the results deriving from this action, mainly in students and local actors. The analysis of institutional alignment with human development (DH) was based on the four values of DH presented by Boni and Gasper (2012): welfare, participation and empowerment, equity and diversity, and sustainability. In addition, to address the analysis of capabilities, reference was made of the Professional Capabilities Index; with the values, knowledge and skills to provide services to society developed by Walker and Mc Lean (2013).
The analysis of the alignment of CE with human development found substantive evidence of favourable alignment of the rules and practices of SL with regard to the four values of DH. SL is perceived as a mechanism for reconciling and reducing the inequalities that occurred under apartheid. The past discrimination, misinformation and slavery that took place in South Africa served as inspiration to drive the work of CE. From the perspective of interviewees, community liaison has enabled them to contribute to the construction of a new ideology, in response to an unjust, oppressive and dehumanising system. The implementation of CE fuses the spirit of commitment and favourable processes of community partnerships, leading to the sharing, exchange and building of knowledge and skills. These actions aim to achieve positive results in the quality of life of those involved, through partnership, dialogue, understanding the dynamics of society and capacity building, combined with teaching and research. The SL encourages students to channel their knowledge, emotions and feelings and act responsibly on behalf of others. The classroom alone is insufficient when the intention is for the student to experience transformation, and transformational thinking, which can be achieved through the relationship and exchange with society in all its complexity.
This research has enabled us to recover stakeholder perceptions of the impact of CE on the institution, on life and on the community, their assessment of the environment and the transformation of the university. For those interviewed, CE has contributed to a change in the paradigm of knowledge, in the sense that the university has faced the challenge of broadening its perspective on knowledge and its way of thinking, extending it to include that which arises all around, from different resources, from skills, experiences, relationships, human resources and other resources that are in the community. Unlike a researcher, who may perceive people as resources or objects of research, without any long-term commitment, CE reorients those involved towards searching for and building common objectives, to participation and the creation of a reflective citizenship, with solidarity and accountability, to face relevant community issues.
Some of the contributions of the UFS-community relationship that are most valued by organisations and communities spring from the very presence of the UFS in the community, by bringing knowledge and services to those who have no means of accessing them. Furthermore, they appreciate the space and feel valued by the university, in terms of their contribution to imparting and assisting in the training and education of students. Non Governmental Organisations benefit from the continuous training of staff in new methodologies, approaches and knowledge, which promotes an increase in the quality of social services they direct at communities.
The study also managed to identify inconsistencies in institutional culture and political will at the highest university level that undermine and destabilise the CE in the long term. Some common concerns are related to the increase in action and the permanence of the university in the community, the quality of the approach (interdisciplinary) and a greater involvement of the faculties. Likewise, the increase in the intellectual production of the CE, creating feedback for teaching and research, and institutional changes will be vital for the reappraisal of the CE and its long-term financial sustainability.

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