“Academic institutions must find new ways to engage with society or they will not survive”
These were the inaugural words of Prof. S.K. Pandey, Vice-Chancellor of Pandit Ravi Shankar Shukla University in Raipur, Chhattisgarh on April 20, 2016 at the Raipur workshop on learning Community Based Research (CBR). The Raipur four-day course on CBR is part of the UNESCO Chair’s ‘Festival of Learning’ which involves a learning road show from New Delhi, to Hyderabad, to Raipur, to Jaipur and back to New Delhi. Our Festival of Learning is the first of many dissemination or knowledge mobilization events associated with the finishing up of our Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (Canada) funded project on identifying ways to provide learning opportunities for the next generation of community based researchers. The Canadian Commission additionally supported the India Festival for UNESCO and our many Indian partners.
The call for change which Prof. S.K. Pandey threw out to the 100+ participants from several regional universities, NGOs and government officials was followed by equally challenging remarks from the Vice-Chair of the Chhattisgarh State Planning Commission, Mr Sunil Kumar. He noted that the debate that is emerging these days in India and in other parts of the world is part of a long debate about the role of higher education in India. Mahatma Gandhi was clear that decolonized higher education spaces were needed to provide intellectual, ideological and mobilization skills for the growing Independence movement of the 1920s and 1930s in India. Gandhi actively encouraged the creation of the Gujarat Vidyapeeth in Ambadabad and Jamia Millia in New Delhi. In Bengal, he noted that the university created earlier by Rabindranath Tagore would serve the needs of the movement. Sunil Kumar reminded the participants that the word “university” refers to the university of knowledges, not a collection of disciplines. He pledged that the State Planning Commission looked forward to collaborating with Dr. Rajesh Tandon, President, PRIA and Co-Chair, as well as the regional universities, in taking on the pressing issues of the day. He call upon Pandit Ravi Shankar Shukla University to create a faculty of community based participatory research.
These quite visionary remarks would be welcome in any political jurisdiction in most parts of world, for there is a huge gap between the aspirations of some higher education leaders and visionary public servants, or even some politicians, and the ability of higher education institutions (HEIs) themselves to respond. Students find their curricula disconnected from daily lives. Their courses are disciplinarily based with attention primarily given to the dominant theoreticians of the global North. Like most of our universities in the global North, in India too students are not exposed to community based participatory research principles.
Another observation arising from the Festival road trip is the role of CSO or NGO leaders/intellectuals. In the day-long symposium on CBR in Hyderabad on 18 April 2016, where academics, NGO leaders and local government leaders shared the room, it was significant that in terms of having a clear picture of the nature of the challenges facing urban and rural communities, NGO spokespersons were in fact the most articulate and eloquent persons in the room. Some of the government public servants were also extremely insightful on issues of social justice. Curiously, the academics were the least effective in discussions of how to work together to make changes.
These conversations confirm the need for much more attention to the provision of more opportunities for community workers, students and local government to learn how to do CBR.
Budd L Hall
April 21, Raipur