Community engagement in South African higher education institutions

By Salah Elzein Mohamed

Throughout the world, institutions of higher education are facing the challenge of engaging more closely with surrounding communities, developing an intellectual foundation for such engagement and integrating the key aspects of the university’s mission: teaching, research and service.

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These developments are being prompted by the increase in social problems in the face of growing disparities between rich and poor. In different countries, community engagement by higher education institutions is underpinned by values of social responsibility, political commitment and academic excellence. South Africa is no exception and there are many community engagement programmes in its higher education institutions.

The evolution of community engagement in higher education

Prior to 1994, community outreach and extension service programmes were the major categories of community engagement in South African higher education institutions. These programmes were mainly initiated by concerned academic staff in response to the social, economic and political needs of communities at the time. Examples of these kinds of programmes are the University of Witwatersrand’s Rural Facility and the University of the Western Cape’s Community Dentistry Initiative.

The White Paper on the Transformation of Higher Education (1997) laid the foundations for making community service an integral part of higher education in South Africa. It stated that one of the goals of higher education is to promote and develop social responsibility and awareness among students of the role of higher education in social and economic development through community service programmes.

During 1997 and 1998, the Joint Education Trust conducted a survey of community service in South African higher education. Based on the findings of the survey, the Trust launched its Community Higher Education Service Partnership (CHESP) [1] project in 1999. The ultimate goal of CHESP is to contribute to the reconstruction of the South African society through the development of a socially accountable model for higher education. Central to this model is the development of partnerships between communities, higher education institutions and the service sectors to address national development priorities.

In recent years, several higher education institutions in South Africa have developed institutional policies, guidelines and strategies for community engagement and service-learning. Generally, these address diverse issues such as the institution’s interpretation of community engagement and service-learning; objectives to be achieved through the policy; mechanisms for implementation; staff promotions and rewards pertaining to community engagement; organisational structures and staffing required for implementation; risk management in terms of student placements; and the allocation of resources towards implementation.

The University of the Free State, for example, adopted its policy on community service in August 2002. According to the policy, the University regards integrated community service programmes as mechanisms that will promote increasing democratic participation, greater emphasis on development, and an increase in partnerships. It sees these as the main thrusts of the transformation process of the higher education sector.

Institutionally, the University of the Free State has established a central Chief Directorate of Community Service as well as community service committees in its six faculties. During 2003 and 2004 the University went a long way towards developing and implementing community service-learning. [2] With a total of 42 service-learning programmes that now involve 2 233 students, the University comes out top among the other South African higher education institutions that are supported by the Joint Education Trust through the CHESP project to introduce service-learning in higher education.

Benefits of community engagement to society

Through community engagement, the expertise of the higher education institutions in the areas of teaching and research are applied to address challenges that face society. Community engagement typically finds expression in a variety of forms, ranging from the informal and relatively unstructured volunteer activities to the formal and structured service-learning academic programmes.

Service-learning (also known as community-based learning) engages students in activities where both the community and students are primary beneficiaries and where the goals are to provide a service to the community and, equally, to enhance student learning through provision of this service. Central features of service-learning are reciprocity, mutual enrichment and integration with scholarly activities.

Volunteerism and community outreach programmes engage students in activities where the primary beneficiary is the recipient community and where the primary goal is to provide service. Volunteer programmes are extra-curricular and non-credit-bearing. Outreach programmes are initiated from within the institution by a faculty or a department and may give recognition in the form of academic credit or research publications. Successful volunteer and outreach programmes may enhance the relationship with the community and impact positively on teaching and research in the institution.

Mainstreaming community engagement

During the first decade of democracy in South Africa, university perceptions of the nature and role of community engagement have shifted significantly within a more favourable policy environment. However, a perception that community engagement and service are merely nice-to-have philanthropic activities remains a key challenge to their integration as a core function of the academy.

The challenge of mainstreaming community engagement has been supported by two important initiatives. The first is the CHESP project that has already been mentioned.

Through CHESP, the Joint Education Trust (JET) has over the past five years supported the conceptualisation, implementation, monitoring and evaluation of service-learning in 184 accredited academic courses across 39 academic disciplines in 10 higher education institutions. These programmes involved 6 930 students ranging from first year to master’s level. All courses were designed to incorporate the principles of service-learning [3] and formed part of JET’s Community Higher Education Service Partnerships (CHESP) project.

CHESP is informed by the White Paper on the Transformation of Higher Education of 1997, and aims to support higher education institutions in South Africa to engage in the development of historically disadvantaged communities. To achieve this, higher education institutions are required to develop appropriate institutional policies, strategies, organisational structures and accredited mainstream academic programmes.

Service-learning is seen as reconnecting higher education institutions with society by making the academic missions of these institutions more responsive and relevant to the pressing contemporary problems of society. It is not intended to replace other forms of learning and teaching. Rather, the approach is a complementary one that is intended to supplement the range of strategies available to achieve excellence in teaching and learning through the institution’s responsiveness to the wider socio-economic context in which it operates.

Service-learning is just one form of an array of service programmes that aim to benefit the student as well as the community. Other forms of engagement in the South African higher education context include volunteerism, community outreach, cooperative education and internships. [4]

Quality assurance

The second important support factor for community engagement programmes is the link that has been established with the conception of quality in higher education. The founding document of the Higher Education Quality Committee (HEQC) identifies community engagement as a key area of quality assurance along with teaching and research. This has been followed by the development of comprehensive criteria for the quality assurance of service-learning at institutional and programmatic levels. The criteria call on higher education institutions to have quality-related arrangements for community engagement that include: policies and procedures for the quality management of community engagement; integration of community engagement into teaching, learning and research; and allocation of adequate resources to achieve quality in community engagement as part of the institutions’ activities.

The HEQC is collaborating with CHESP on a project that aims to promote quality, share good practice and build quality capacity in the area of community engagement including service-learning. HEQC has also developed a guide to good practice in service-learning. Other outcomes of the project expected for 2006 will be regional capacity building workshops, a publication on the engaged university and a national conference on community engagement, which will include international participation.

In conclusion, community engagement in the institutions of higher education in South Africa is expected to make considerable progress in future. In addition to the planned interventions by national institutions to give impetus to the idea, higher education institutions across the country are increasingly developing policies, establishing structures and allocating funds to improve their community engagement programmes.

[2] University of the Free State, accessed at
[3] JET Education Services and Community Higher Education Service Partnerships (2004), Synopsis of Progress and Future Direction, September 2004.
[4] Council on Higher Education (2004) South African Higher Education in the First Decade of Democracy, accessed at