22 October 2021 | Story Leonie Bolleurs | Photo Charl Devenish
UFS staff and students who attended the Talloires Network Leaders Conference, were from the left: Rina Widd, Occupational Therapy Student Association; Lyshea Mapaike, Social Work Student Association; Gernus Terblanche, SRC member for Civic and Social Responsibility; Relebohile Sebetoane, Eco-alliance Association; and Karen Venter.

The University of the Free State (UFS) Directorate Community Engagement was recently (30 September to 3 October 2021) among the 419 institutions and 79 countries that participated in the (virtual) Talloires Network Leaders Conference (TNLC2021).

The conference, which was a global gathering of higher education leaders and students from all regions of the world, focused on Global Institutions, Local Impact: Power and Responsibility of Engaged Universities. 

Some of the highlights of the conference were the sessions titled: Global Universities, Local Impact: Roles and Responsibilities of Universities with Philip Cotton, Head of the Mastercard Foundation Scholars Programme; and the keynote address by Secretary John Kerry, US Special Envoy on Climate, titled What can we learn from the pandemic that helps (or hinders) addressing climate change? 

Cotton, believing in the power of compassion in the transformation of young people, said: “It is possible that the more you become the kind of university that matters to our young people, because you connect with the poorest and the hardest to reach, and those most harshly oppressed by climate change, then the more serving, humane, engaged and compassionate you become. 

He added: “Listen to the young people, they are telling us what is wrong with our systems, and the solutions are in their hands.”

Addressing global challenges

According to Karen Venter, Head of the Service-Learning Division in the UFS Directorate of Community Engagement, the event provided the opportunity to critically reflect on the power and responsibility of engaged universities, to collaborate and connect in partnership with communities, and to address local and global challenges. 

“Participants shared knowledge, ideas, case studies, and built collaborations for action on important and interrelated issues, including pandemic recovery and resilience; conflict and inequality; climate justice; assessing engagement; and community engagement futures,” she says.

Some of the UFS attendees remarked that they were amazed by the work being done worldwide. They were spurred on and inspired to not only improve their modules, but also their work in the community.

Besides being exposed to world-class leaders on issues that matter, the conference also maximised engagement and forged connections on a local level. The UFS hosted a delegation of 19 academics, students, and community members from Rhodes University (RU), who not only attended the conference with them, but also an additional pre-conference digital storytelling knowledge-sharing workshop, and a mini-Engaged Learning Festival.

RU also won the McJanet Prize for Global Citizenship, following a review of 28 nominations from 15 countries and 10 finalists from 8 countries.

Sharing best practices

The digital storytelling workshop (where information about projects and people are communicated in short, multimedia tales, told from the heart), according to Venter, rekindled the UFS-RU partnership for sharing local social innovation stories globally through digital storytelling, which was born from the Common Good First EU Erasmus +-funded project.

During the learning festival, the two universities shared best practices on some of the community programmes in which they are involved, including UFS presentations from Enactus for social entrepreneurship, and the No Hungry Student initiative, which involves student residences’ community food gardens. RU reported on their active citizenship (Nine Tenths mentor mentee schools programme) and community-based research projects.

Better together

Besides international conferences such as TNLC2021, and other local engagements to always stay on top of the latest community engagement practices, the UFS and RU are both members of the South African Higher Education Community Engagement Forum (SAHECEF). According to Venter, the UFS-RU partnership showcased how different regional chapters of SAHECEF collaborated as communities of practice to advance the praxis of an engaged scholarship. 

Both the institutions are also involved in the South African Knowledge for Change (K4C) Hub within a K4C Consortium of the UNESCO Chair in Community Based Research and Social Responsibility towards training for community-based researchers in the context of community university research partnerships.

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