Civic Engagement in Higher Education: Why it Matters

About the Talloires Network

The Talloires Network is a global movement dedicated to enhancing civic engagement and social responsibilities within the higher education sector. Founded in 2005 in France with just 29 representatives from 21 universities, the organization’s numbers have since skyrocketed to comprise 332 member institutions from 72 countries. This exponential growth implies a transcendent belief that universities do not exist just to educate, but also to serve.

Business people joining hands

Business people joining hands

Co-sponsored by the South African Higher Education Community Engagement Forum, this year’s conference was titled, “Live Engagement, Transform Lives.” In addition to the usual themes related to technology, politics, and public policy, the conference honed in on three additional issues: perspectives from the global South, youth employment, and economic development. The Cape Higher Education Consortium, which includes the Western Cape province’s four universities, co-hosted the event.

The ultimate goal of the Talloires Network? The evolution of community engagement into an intrinsic component of university strategies.

How Civic Engagement Makes a Different

While student engagement has long been connected with retention and success rates, recent research from the Higher Education Research and Advocacy Network in Africa (HERANA) also links community involvement with better citizenship. HERANA’s conclusions? The incorporation of public affairs awareness, civic interaction and student leadership opportunities into an institution’s culture leads to heightened citizenship competences ranging from critical thinking and leadership to social skills and diversity.

Today’s future leaders face many obstacles when it comes to solving societal problems, such as lack of jobs, infectious diseases and climate change. And while a “big picture” approach may guide strategies, direct engagement at the local level adds an invaluable human element while also positively impacting the economic development of an institution’s neighborhood or city. Read more about studying Corporate Social Responsibility.

Just how important is this initiative? During the recent TNLC meeting, members called for global higher education ranking systems to start factoring in civic engagement when assessing universities.

Changes in university marketing efforts also suggest a shift to this way of thinking. While past marketing campaigns tended to highlight the benefits of on-campus interactions, today’s civic-minded universities also focus on surrounding neighborhoods, along with the opportunities for community service and real-world experience they present to students — both during the college years and on the job market following graduation.

Challenges to Civic Engagement

While community engagement is not a novel idea, the concept has taken a backseat to more “urgent” concerns, such as research. The Talloires Network hopes that dialog between university decision-makers can establish best practices for reinforcing the importance of community engagement. And while research will always remain an essential part of university strategies, the Talloires Network proposes that integrating classroom, community and applied research can lead to excellent results across all inputs. Read more about studying Social Work.

The growing field of community-based learning and research, also referred to as “service-learning,” seeks to fuse the theoretical and the practical through community service. This approach enriches intellectual development while imbuing a sense of civic responsibility and ultimately strengthening communities. These ideals are increasingly embedded in many university strategic plans, such as the School of International Service, at the American University in Washington, D.C., where “life at the university will be marked by rich opportunities for service…and a vigorous commitment to the city and people of Washington, D.C.”