Globally, universities have largely institutionalised initiatives to involve students and staff in socially responsive activities. India started the process with the setting up of the National Service Scheme (NSS) in 1969—whose sole aim was to “provide hands-on experience to young students in delivering government-led community service activities and programmes”.
While participation in the NSS is voluntary, the University Grants Commission (UGC) put out an advisory in February 2019 to all universities to include it as a compulsory activity. This was done with the aim of “Fostering Social Responsibility and Community Engagement in Higher Education Institutions in India.” The 2020 National Education Policy (NEP) also envisaged the transformation of higher education institutions into “large, well resourced, vibrant multidisciplinary institutions providing high-quality teaching, research, and community engagement.” The National Assessment and Accreditation Council (NAAC) too has included “Social Responsibility” as one of the key indicators under Institutional Values and Key Practices.
The formalisation of ’University Social Responsibility’ and ‘Community Engagement’ in Indian curricula is indeed a welcome step by the UGC. But for these initiatives to take off would require a clear organisational recognition by Higher Education Institutes (HEIs) so that it makes it easier to organise and attract resources to implement them. Without this, the desired outcomes in the form of holistic development of students, targeted communities and even higher university ratings—are unlikely to be achieved.
Why and How is Social Responsibility Linked to Universities?
One often tends to forget that a university is also an organisation—albeit one with a difference since universities are entrusted with the responsibility of educating students to be able to meet workplace challenges. Given this, the universities also have a role in meeting the “economic, legal, ethical and philanthropic expectations that society has of organisations at a given point of time.”
Therefore in parallel with developing models of CSR for companies, the concept of “University Social Responsibility” arose in the specific context of defining the social responsibility roles of universities. It was defined as the “need to strengthen civic commitment and active citizenship” while also “developing a sense of civil citizenship by encouraging the students, the academic staff to provide social services to their local community or to promote ecological, environmental commitment for local and global sustainable development.” It was also expected that the university social responsibility activities would ideally “integrate stakeholders and communities” so that it is possible to “promote multi-stakeholder and broader participatory approaches to leverage greater value.”
The relevance of university-led sustainable development in neoliberal higher education institutions should also be seen in the context of the Sustainable Development Goals adopted in 2015 because through their learning modalities, universities can make learners adaptable, civic conscious, and community-focused. They can also play a role in ensuring students have the requisite emotional and intellectual sensitivities to economic, cultural and environmental concerns. That is why numerous declarations and charters have sought to embed sustainability education within their “curricula, research, operations outreach, assessment and reporting“.
How do Indian Universities Envisage Social Responsibility?
The University Grants Commission (UGC) lofty set of goals to ensure “active community engagement.” centred around improving the “quality of learning and teaching” for students and faculty mainly through the “interaction of universities with local communities.” It was expected that this would not only reduce the “gap between theory and practice” but would also catalyse the “values of public service and active citizenship” among students.
However, these guidelines were largely focused on serving “rural communities” living in the vicinity of the university. This was ostensibly done to support the Unnat Bharat Abhiyan (UBA)—which believes it is “necessary to promote the development of rural areas in tune with the Gandhian vision of self-sufficient village republics.” Hoping that Higher Educational Institutions (HEIs) can play an active role in doing so, the UBA required participating universities to adopt five villages in their vicinity with a specific rural development focus. This could be in the form of initiatives in organic farming, water management, renewable energy, basic amenities, artisans, industries, and livelihood.
Despite the policy push, the institutionalisation of Community Engagement as envisaged by the guidelines did not really happen. In a conversation with Wafa Singh, who was earlier the India Research Coordinator for the UNESCO Chair in Community Based Research and Social Responsibility in Higher Education, had this to say, “lack of institutionalisation of community engagement in universities“ in India leads to “extremely limited understanding of the concept among faculty and students.” This leads to a rather haphazard and casual implementation of community engagement in universities by both faculty and students.
This is because Institutions have not been able to recognise that “traditional extension and outreach programs, though important and necessary, are not sufficient to heal the rift between higher education and public life” because it requires an “approach that extends beyond service and outreach to actual engagement”. There is thus a need to “develop a clear vision” of Community Engagement, as “considerable discrepancies in views exist among the Indian HEIs”.
This lack of institutionalisation of community engagement is also borne out by the sparse research publications that have showcased best practices for community engagement within universities. As one researcher put it succinctly, “Very little empirical work exists with regard to how community engagement is operationalised in rural India, and even in other areas of India”.
What Actually Happens During University Social Responsibility Drives?
There is likely to be a large degree of diversity in the type of activities carried out based on the nature of the institution. Medical colleges tend to have a far broader scope in the form of conduct of rural health camps wherein health checkups are carried out. Traditionally community service has been the preserve of humanities departments and that too mainly of that of the Social Work department. A read-through of the best practice report of NAAC on community engagement will indicate that most universities have a limited understanding of community engagement. It tends to be usually limited to data collection, skill enhancement/knowledge-building sessions, blood donation camps and one-off activities. This is indicative of the HEIs inability to have clarity on the objectives of community engagement which are possibly undertaken as lip service owing to mandated guidelines.
Having said this, in universities and institutes where community immersion is deeply embedded in the course syllabi and delivery, there are definite experiential learning outcomes for the student community. The case of Bhagat Phool Singh Mahila Vishwavidyalaya can be highlighted which has very successfully integrated community engagement in its teaching and learning processes with reciprocity in takeaways for both students, faculty and the community. There this process was described as having the characteristics of “socially responsible, rapport building, continuous interaction with the community and the interconnectedness of teaching, research, and engagement”. Their community engagement has been institutionalised and operationalised through the Centre for Society University Interface (CSUIR).
The importance of structuring community engagement also emerged during our discussions with the faculty of Flame University and students of Tata Institute of Social Sciences which had clear mandates for effecting community engagement.
As Professor Kunal Ray of Flame University put it, successful engagement can be achieved by “thorough planning and structuring of projects and also ensuring a certain degree of conceptual grounding of students before they go to the field in groups along with their faculty mentors.” Masters students of TISS were also required to do a fair amount of research prior to going into the field. Ashok Dhanavath, alumni of TISS added that “due sensitisation of students on issues such as caste, tribal affairs, rural economy, gender, local issues is needed before students are sent out for community-based projects.”
However, investing in local community-based rural projects can become difficult more so in universities with multiple disciplines and with thousands of students. The challenges are in the nature of funding such initiatives, logistics of operationalisation and most important the lack of a strategic vision to engage with communities on a long-term basis. This is because ‘adopting a village’—or multiple villages—requires a multi-pronged strategy, with dedicated resources and long-term outreach to understand the stakeholder requirements. Further, to get the required positive outcomes from community engagement, universities must be willing to invest in an ecosystem of developing strong reciprocal relationships with local communities to build familiarity with ground issues. With universities grappling with numerous compelling priorities, finding the requisite resources to focus on building this vertical becomes a secondary activity.
In a very recent positive development for community engagement, the UGC has deemed that all HEIs must offer a compulsory credit course in community engagement for both undergraduate and postgraduate students so that they “understand the rural culture, lifestyles, and causes for distress and poverty faced by vulnerable households.” Despite introducing some flexibility in terms of students being encouraged to study lived experiences of communities during COVID-19, the community engagement focus of the UGC continues to be rural oriented. The outcomes of the course on community engagement for students were to “be able to gain an understanding of rural life, Indian culture, and ethos and social realities” so as to “identify opportunities for contributing to the community’s socio-economic improvements.”
How Can Universities Improve Their Community Engagement?
In 2021, India was ranked 120th on the achievement of SDG goals, having fallen 3 places since the 2020 rankings. Unless universities in the country fulfil their responsibility of producing socially conscious and responsible citizens, it will take us decades to even reach the goals set for 2030. Right now, community engagement is just considered as another extension activity whereas the need is to mainstream it and institutionalise it. This effort requires a stupendous institutional dedication in the form of time, human and financial resources which universities may need to put in.
While there is no denying the need to invest in rural communities, the approach of restricting community engagement only to them is unfeasible and restrictive. To be able to actualise the potential of University Social Responsibility, universities may need to structure community engagement to answer certain pertinent questions.
Firstly, the universities need to determine how they would like to define the scope of community. Would the community only include people living in a geographical area classified as a ‘village’, or, can it be expanded to cover specific sections of society such as construction workers, artisans and craftspeople, domestic workers, senior citizens, street vendors, farmers, small shopkeepers or even tiny and unorganised organisations or NGOs? Redefining ‘community’ may make it possible to focus on multi-faceted engagement and relief efforts, such as the impacts of COVID-19 on women, small businesses, or factory workers. Ensuring flexibility in selecting issues and communities is key to making any community engagement exercise successful.
Secondly, universities may need to be clear on their goals on what they hope to achieve through community engagement. The overt focus on only data collection for report-writing considerably dilutes the objective of community engagement and therefore must be explicitly discouraged. Students descending en-masse to collect data only to embellish a report for getting a grade is rather inconsiderate, condescending and extremely self-serving. Community projects can and should be able to cover a wide spectrum of interventions such as training and mentoring, knowledge building, documentation, story-telling, research, fundraising, marketing, digital literacy, technological innovations and so on.
Finally, universities must attempt to benchmark the projects based on a measurable engagement index of community involvement. For example, the basic minimum engagement level of a project must at least inform stakeholders of specific deliverables. It can then be scaled and deepened in the form of interdependent consultations, involvement, collaboration, and empowerment. It is therefore important to map community engagement projects on the index before choosing a particular project.
Moving Forward: The Community Engagement Index
The higher the community engagement, the richer the takeaways for all the stakeholders—be it those in academia or the communities that the students work with. Community engagement needs to move beyond the typical outreach approach and move to a more reciprocal and respectful synergistic relationship between diverse communities.
Community engagement projects require to be documented in academically acceptable formats to ensure the integrity of data and processes. This is critical to enable the dissemination of best practices across campuses. Needless to say, this will require Universities to be more mindful of training students and faculty in research methods, communication and ethical research.
The fact that community engagement till now has been largely treated as experiential. This often leaves it open to being perceived as a waste of time not only by students but also by faculty. There is a pressing need to first have a thorough orientation prior to going on the field so that the students are mindful of the underlying social, economic, cultural or environmental nuances before they attempt to interact with targeted communities. This encourages a respectful and reciprocal experience with takeaways for both students and communities. Only then can universities fulfil their social responsibility mandate.
The Yash Pal Committee Report aptly summarised the need for community engagement. “It is important that the universities relate to the world outside and the walls of disciplines are porous enough to let other voices be heard. It would also be necessary that university education is seen in its totality and the subject areas are not designed in isolation.”
Featured image of M. Venkaiah Naidu and college students at a Swachh Bharat rally organised by the students. Image Credits: Ministry of Information and Broadcasting on Wikimedia.