Universities and civic engagement (Ronnie Munck and Lorraine McIlrath)
Do universities engage sufficiently with the wider society? In this guest blog post, Professor Ronnie Munck of DCU and Dr Lorraine McIlrath of NUI Galway look at the current position and describe an initiative under way to secure civic engagement as a key component of higher education.
In a hitherto neglected section the Hunt Report argues that ‘Engagement with the wider community must become more firmly embedded in the mission of higher education institutions. Higher education institutions need to become more firmly embedded in the social and economic contexts of the communities they live in and serve” (National Strategy for Higher Education to 2030). So what is the higher education sector currently doing about civic engagement? Why might this be important? How can the sector develop civic engagement to position it as one of three core strategic pillars of the future vision of higher education, alongside teaching/learning and research?
While teaching/learning and research are all accepted core elements across higher education institutions in Ireland, supported by key performance indicators and quality assurance metrics, civic or community engagement activities are still at a nascent or ad-hoc stage. Moving civic engagement forward into a strategic, sustainable and systematic feature of higher education in Ireland presents us with considerable challenges. The twin objectives, we believe, are to achieve greater cohesion for these vital activities and to ensure their sustainability in a period of resource constraints.
The rationale seems clear. From an economic perspective, an engaged higher education sector gives Ireland competitive advantage, promotes critical thinking and encourages innovation (Innovation Task Force, 2010). From a social context, improved civic engagement and participation brings social justice to the fore and promotes and strengthens equality, access and participation. In terms of civil society, civic engagement is key to meeting the needs of wider society and promoting active citizenship.
To deliver on its 2030 vision for higher education, the Hunt Report stresses the necessity to educate students for their role as “citizens who will add to the richness of society – as parents, community leaders and teachers – and in their chosen area of work they will be the productive engine of a vibrant and prosperous economy”. What is clear to both DCU and NUI Galway, from their respective civic engagement experience, is that this work promotes democracy and wider participation, questions, and encourages investigations into the prevailing status quo, as well as helping to develop participatory approaches to research practice. A must for a country at a political and economic cross- roads, where graduate brain drain is becoming a daily activity, should be the promotion of critical thinking by our higher education institutions.
Civic engagement within higher education is now at a defining moment in Ireland. We have built up some significant experience and there are solid achievements, however uneven these gains might be across the country. Now, for the first time, it has been given equal prominence in a major policy statement with the teaching/learning and research functions of higher education. We need to explore ways to move the civic engagement activities from the periphery to be part of the core business and core values of higher education. If we want engagement to be socially transformative rather than an optional add-on then we need a serious dialogue and action plan that involves all higher education institutions and their community partners, to ensure an inclusive national forum/platform.
Compared with international civic engagement activities within higher education, Ireland is at an early stage despite signal advances within some institutions. Drawing from international best practice within the US, Australia and the Arab world, it is evident that national networks to support and buttress civic engagements activities have become pivotal in enabling the realisation of civic engagement. In 2007, the Higher Education Authority (HEA) Strategic Innovation Fund (SIF 1) funded the development of an Irish civic engagement network, ‘Campus Engage’ which has now completed Phase 1 of its development. The network’s objectives were to strengthen the relationship between higher education and the wider society, through promoting civic engagement activities in higher education in Ireland and facilitating the sharing of knowledge and resources between academic and civic communities. The Campus Engage network, in a short period of time, has supported activity and promoted interest in this feature of higher education, and raised awareness of the benefits, opportunities and challenges.
Through Campus Engage, a national survey was conducted in 2010-2011 with 24 higher education institutions including universities, institutes of technology and some teacher training colleges. The purpose of the survey was to map civic engagement activities across the sector, the first of its kind within Ireland. The survey has demonstrated that civic engagement is both supported by senior management within higher education and almost all mission statements and/or strategic plans underpin engagement with community and society. But, of concern is that over 60% indicate that promotion policies do not take civic engagement into account alongside teaching/learning and research. In addition, just three institutions surveyed indicate that they have dedicated civic engagement structures. Meanwhile, barriers to the growth of activities were reported as being both human and fiscal resources. However, resources are scarce and we are now in a period of reduced funding for higher education. So it is now both urgent and opportune to engage in a dialogue about how we develop and embed civic engagement in a cost effective manner to ensure maximum benefit.
Campus Engage would like to point to future successful drivers in terms of institutionalisation within higher education in Ireland. Some suggestions include the development of a higher education ‘Manifesto’ or ‘Declaration’ to be endorsed at institutional level by senior representative in the sector. This follows international best practice such as the international ‘Talloires Declaration’ and within the US the ‘Wingspread Declaration’ that unites 25% of all colleges and universities through the Campus Compact network. The development of a higher education national web portal to document and measure civic engagement would assist in the development of key performance indicators and benchmarks. Further, this portal would enable the sector to report on student engagement as part of the Bologna Process and Diploma Supplement and create an environment for the debate, contextualise and develop a discourse of civic engagement within higher education in Ireland. Funding must be made available for the continuation of this national network and for individual higher education institutions, as dedicated personnel is a key to sustainability.
We are calling for a serious debate within higher education, perhaps with the support of the Higher Education Authority. Let us turn a crisis into an opportunity. A strong and coherent civic engagement programme can be another strand to the re-invention of the university to deal with hard times through its research and teaching programmes but also through engagement with their local and regional communities.
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