Thoughts from the Symposium on Mainstreaming University-Community Research Partnerships in New Delhi
Budd L Hall
Prof. B.L. Mungekar, a senior Indian intellectual and former member of the Government of India’s Planning Commission, shared this stimulating statement in a room filled with academics, higher education policy officials and leaders of key Indian civil society organisations at the symposium on Mainstreaming University-Community Research Partnerships organised under the umbrella of the UNESCO Chair for Community-Based Research and Social Responsibility in Higher Education on April 9th at the Habitat Centre in New Delhi (https://unescochair-cbrsr.org/unesco/pdf/9_April_2015_event_report.pdf).
Prof. Mungekar was making a point, albeit a provocative one, that universities need to get over the idea that they hold a monopoly on knowledge production. He was telling us that knowledge is created everywhere that people live and work and is the product of a natural process of naming the world that has gone on for centuries and continues to this day. A statement like this can be very disquieting not only to those of us who are researchers or scholars but also to our higher education leaders who provide us with a salary and a place to work under the impression that we are creating knowledge.
Questions on the nature of knowledge and the nature of community research partnerships formed the core of the conversation throughout the day. The findings of the International Development Research Centre funded study on “Mainstreaming Community Based Research: Strengthening Community University Research Partnerships” that has been undertaken by the UNESCO Chair were also shared in the Symposium.
Key findings from the survey include universities have to make a decision to invest in community-university partnerships, the variety of language in describing such work (engaged scholarship, action research, participatory research, community based research, etc), the differences in the knowledge cultures of academe and civil society, and the need to build capacities in both. Experiences from Italy, Spain, China and Canada, mixed in with presentations from a wide reach of Indian institutions, seemed to find resonance with the findings of the survey.
Of particular interest is the news that the 12th development plan of India, where Dr Rajesh Tandon contributed to the higher education section, has released sizable funds through the University Grants Commission to encourage the development of Centre for Fostering Social Responsibility and Community Engagement (CFSRCE) in public universities in India. Such policy enablement to develop mutual co-creation and research capacities have to be strengthened. Otherwise, we will not be able to achieve the main vision of community engagement.
The UNESCO Co-Chairs were urged to clarify what community engagement should mean, particularly in the context of India where there are so many kinds of higher educational institutions. Community engagement cannot mean only teachers/researchers from the university working with the community. Engagement will be meaningful only when it is not confined to the social sciences or the arts, as it traditionally is in Indian universities. Teachers need freedom to design, develop and implement curricula; only then will research efforts be connected to and inform teaching. Focus also needs to be paid to the recruitment of teachers and their development. Advocating for incorporating community engagement and community-university research partnerships is crucial in this regard. The government portal (www.mygov.in) is a platform that we can use to provide inputs on this issue for the New Education Policy that is currently being framed in India.
The commitment of this Chair to bring life to the issue of community engagement, to convene similar forums to document experiences and create a network of community engagement “champions” is undoubted.