PROF. RUPA SHAH
Paper presented at the CHE-HEQC/JET-CHESP Conference on Community
Engagement in Higher Education 3 to 5 September 2006
We live in an uncertain world today. This uncertainly arises because of the
escalating violence, wars, civil strife and the increased frequencies of natural
yet man-made disasters. Having lived through the 26th July floods in Mumbai of
last year and the terror attacks in Mumbai this year, I am poignantly aware of
the frailty of the present world. As an educationist I look inwards and ask
myself the question, what can institutions of higher education do to stem this
downward slide of human civilization and work towards a world of peaceful co-
existence – a world where the highest ideals of human society are upheld and
each citizen enjoys the gifts of freedom, equality and peace? Given the
complexity of this question, it will undoubtedly be answered differently by
different people, from their ideological and disciplinary locations. My own
location as an educationist makes me seek these answers from within the
University system. I am painfully aware that somewhere along the line, our
generation has failed. While we would like to pass this blame on to the political
leaders, the bureaucrats and the business tycoons, we too must accept our
India, is one country who has not seen a war, but is a living
fact to gain her bloodless Freedom!
Based on my intimate understanding of the Indian education system, I speak
here of the innovative experiments of integrating community development into
education carried out in India. This is not to imply that I am not conscious, of
failures within the Indian University system to ensure quality education for the
masses even after nearly 6 decades after Independence. The Tenth Plan
profile on education prepared by the University Grants Commission indicates
that while there is a growth of student enrolment in higher education, Indian‟s
access parameters is approximately 1/6th of developed countries. An
examination of the access parameters through the lens of the prevailing social
disparities in society indicates that this access decreases along lines of caste,
class and gender. For instance, although women‟s enrolment has increased
from 20.92 lakhs to 33.24 lakhs in the last decade, it represents a marginal
increase from 33.60 percent in 1992-1993 to 36.15 per cent of the total in 2004.
Some of this failure may be attributed to the mammoth size of the student
population, some to the lack of funds, the increased bureaucratic control and
political interference. But, the awakening to Community Engagement was
ushered in during the Freedom Movement by Gandhiji, who walked
through the villages and included them in the Movement.
In India, education is placed in the concurrent list of the Constitution. This
makes education a responsibility of the state as well as the Central
Government. Some centrally conducted institutions offer quality education that
can compete with the best in the world. Nonetheless, despite shortcomings,
the Indian education system has boldly experimented with the ways in which to
bridge the differences in a society characterized by caste/class/gender and
ethnic differences. Therefore, while I critique some of the blatant shortfalls of
the Indian education system, I would like to focus on its struggle to
establish a just society. One obvious strategy that the Indian education
system has adopted is its affirmative action programme, by which students
from the deprived sections of society are given advantages over others from
the more privileged backgrounds. There is today a raging battle in India about
this issue with the attempt made by the Government to extend the benefits to
the premier institutes of the country. The other, is the experiments conducted
in the Indian education system to integrate community development into higher
education. Since my aim here is to specifically look at the interventions that
Universities can make in community action, I will begin by describing the
rationale for the experiments, as indicted in through the policy guidelines, the
political and philosophical orientations of the question as well as some
important experiments. Here I will draw upon my knowledge as the former
Vice-Chancellor of the SNDT Women‟s University.
Policy Framework for Education and Community Development
In the post independence era, India adopted a socialist pattern of development.
The impact of these policies can be discerned in its educational policies. Seen
as an agent of social change, education was defined as going beyond the
development of the individual to initiate the transformation of society and
as a means of establishing equity. This socialist/democratic concern for
equity is reflected in the important policies that were formulated since the
Radhakrishna Commission Report of 1949 and is reiterated in the subsequent
education policies. The National Policy on Education (1968), Draft National
Policy on Education (1979) and the National Policy on Education (1986)
emphasize that education is a means of equalizing opportunities and enabling
the backward and the under-privileged groups to improve their prospects.
Education is thus seen as a means of ensuring social justice (Ministry of
Human Development, GOI 1964-66 and 1992).
Translated into concrete terms, the socialist underpinning of educational
philosophy justifies the existing affirmative action programme within
educational institutes, whereby students from the socially deprived sectors
are admitted even though they have lesser marks than other students and are
given concessions in fees, etc. The National Policy on Education (1986) states:
education is a means of removing disparities. Therefore, there is a need to
“equalize educational opportunities by attending to the specific needs of those
who have been denied equality so far” (Para 1, NPE 1992). But more
importantly for our discussion here, the education policies justify the
introduction of extension activities in colleges, such as the N.S.S. for
undergraduate students, whereby students are expected to participate in
some nation-building activities. University education was seen as comprising
three critical aspects: 1) research or the discovery of new knowledge; 2)
teaching or the transmission of knowledge from one generation to another; and
3) extension (i.e. becoming agents of social/political transformation). This fits
the bill for Community Engagements (CE) of Higher Education (HE).
The idea that tertiary educational institutions should participate in
community services, springs from the fusion of Gandhian ideals of holistic
education of the head, the heart and the hands with the socialist understanding
that knowledge is best imbibed through action for social change. Knowledge
of the social reality is not seen as received passively in the classrooms,
but through community participation. This understanding is an attempt to
break-away from the elitist model of education that India had inherited during its
colonial past. The „downward filtration theory‟ of education adopted during the
British period assumed that education would percolate down to the masses. It
also saw education as a means to enable Indians to fill up subordinate
positions. In contrast the model sought to be developed was to make
education a vibrant instrument of social change. The model is best reflected in
the following circle of knowledge.
Diagram 1: Circle of Knowledge
There is another dimension to this circle of knowledge. This is the
understanding that the universities must democratize education. The creation
of knowledge is not just the business of academics. There is a need to
recover indigenous knowledge from the grassroots, to hear the voices from
below, learn from them and to represent their experiences in the process of
knowledge construction. Essentially, it is an attempt to point to the power
equation in the creation and propagation of knowledge and to develop a more
inclusive paradigm for the process of knowledge construction.
Therefore, community development is not to be approached with the idea of
educating the people and providing them with training, but with the humility that
seeks knowledge from those who may not have the academic credentials but
have knowledge and experience on their side. Poverty for instance cannot be
understood only in terms of distribution of wealth; it can be most poignantly
understood from the everyday survival strategies and deprivations of a poor
To create the opportunity to carry out work of direct social utility within the context
of the curriculum, debating the social relevance of British Education, needed
revolutionary, root level thinking.
The need to identify what needs to be done and where, by HE, for what purpose,
and with what effect so that the linkage between CE and HE know the practical
problems involved, the processes to surmount them, and also judge the benefits,
and thus the road map of such work be drawn.
The remoteness of the University and the alienation of the educated must be cured
by intelligent action and social involvement of the Universities – they must be the
Resource Centres for Community Engagements.
It is educational innovation and adventure for HE Institutions to be part of CE. HE
must dedicate itself to identifiable social goals, with academic consciousness and
The public credibility of Universities depends upon their being seen to be doing
something which is of recognizable benefit for society. Social relevance acutely
required is legitimate in professional institutions as repayment to society. Social
action from HE, may result in HE becoming the agency of greater understanding,
peace and non-conflict moves. Genuine and important needs can be met with by
creating public opinion voluntarily.
Danger of students being used as cheap labour or political pawns must be guarded
against, a new type of humanitarianism must emerge. A re-identifying with the
community must result by practical service. The ethos of CE must enter HE
institutions, to make caring citizens.
Often lack of knowledge of the community the educational process and its
attainment may lead to reinforcing prejudice and interpretation according to
preconceptions, thus full information of social context and other worker personality
features may be matched for true community devolution and a holistic approach.
The mesh of CE must involve the trio, parent –child and teacher, for a joint role in
the habitat frame Rapporte from within the community portals are of utter
relevance. Recycling of thoughts for both is necessary as social conscience is
also tenet. Thus re-alignment for those in CE is a process of practice, slow,
cautious and gradual educational regeneration.
The SNDT Experience of Initiating Social Change
Before I begin to describe on how SNDT Women‟s University, the oldest women‟s
university in India, developed its community development programmes, I would like
to be a little historical and describe the roots of the University, for it has lessons for
Established in 1916, the experiments in the University have drawn inspiration
from the nationalist/social reform ethos of the time. Its founder, Dr. Dhondo
Keshav Karve, sought to establish gender equity by educating women. But his
vision went far beyond the elitist moorings of university education elsewhere to
open its doors to those women who were condemned to live as widows, under the
darkest shadow of socio-economic and cultural discriminations. Aimed at
equipping women with the idea of selfless service to the community, Karve
recommended a broad based liberal education with a strong vocational
component. In the course of its development the University has developed
innovations in higher education: first, the medium of instruction was the mother
tongue; second, it followed a flexible curriculum and instated subjects like domestic
sciences and child development as university subjects; third, it introduced the
unheard system of self-study to enable women confined to their homes to access
education. It should also not be forgotten that the growth of the University was
set against the backdrop of India’s historical struggle for Independence.
Inspired by the Gandhian vision of India’s freedom, many of its students
participated in the non-violent struggle for India’s freedom, and the villagers
joined equally strong in thought and numbers – thus began the community
Given this background it should come as no surprise that the SNDT
Women’s University has evolved its community development programmes
since the 1970s, we launched various experiments at community work. In fact the
University Grants Commission, the apex body governing university education in
India adopted the model developed by SNDT as the model to be introduced in
other universities all over India. In SNDT the Research Centre for Women‟s
Studies and Rural Development were established at a point of time when the
relevance of separate institutions of higher education for women was questioned.
Through the introduction of Women‟s Studies, it was hoped that women would find
the necessary theoretical space to conceptualize and to build a database on
women, and the Department of Rural Development interweaved the community
Needless to say these first bold steps taken by the SNDT Women‟s University was
made possible by the overall optimism that permeated the 1970s. In response to
the demands of the women‟s liberation movement, the United Nations had
declared 1975 as the International Women‟s Year and held the historic World
Conference of women in Mexico. The United Nations Plan of Action drawn up that
year had called for worldwide research on women to enquire into the adverse
impact of development on rural women in the various parts of the World. In India,
as is well known, the findings of the Towards Equality Report (1974) resulted in
research initiatives being taken up by the Indian Council for Social Sciences. But
what must not be forgotten is that the national and international sanction for the
establishment of these studies was in response to the pressures from the women‟s
movement! This point is crucial in understanding women‟s studies pedagogical
compulsions and some of the current community concerns. It was at the first
National Conference held in 1981 in SNDT Women‟s University that activists,
teachers and professionals called for the establishment of such studies
centers/cells in the University System.
Community Studies in the University System
The introduction of such Studies Centres/Cells in the University System by the
UGC was to make university education relevant to the prevailing social realities.
These Studies were to be the vehicle for promoting non-hierarchical modes of
knowledge generation. Thus the mandate given to these centres are to
conduct research, teaching and extension activities. These three-fold
activities however are not disparate activities. They feed into each other and
enrich the process of knowledge construction. Thus the research conducted in the
centres from the standpoint of community experiences, feeds into the classroom
teaching. While the extension activities undertaken as participatory action
research will enhance the exchange of knowledge and ideas between the
university system and the community. It was hoped that the research
conducted by the centres will revitalize the knowledge generation process of the
universities and enrich different disciplines, while the teaching and the extension
process would contribute to social change. This model can be represented as
One of the earliest experiments the SNDT has conducted has been to take
the university to the village. In course of time, the initiative evolved into a
learning laboratory, wherein the students of not just the SNDT Women‟s
University, but also the other adjoining universities gained theoretical insights
by working in the field, on collaborative, and cooperative basis.
As a research institute, it is only inevitable that the University began its rural
initiatives with research. It conducted a need-based survey of the region as early
as 1976. Based on the findings of the study, we initiated education, health and
income-generation activities in the nine villages. The steady expansion of the
scope of these activities the University felt that the rural development programme
could be developed as a distinct department. Therefore, the University converted
the programme into a full-fledged Centre for Rural Development (CRD) of the
University. The community that the CRD works in, includes the tribal communities,
intermediary caste groups and the upper castes. The people are mainly
horticulturist and the majority of the tribal groups are either landless labourers or
marginal farmers. The ownership of land is largely in the hands of the landlords or
the rich traders. In recent years there has been a steady immigration into the
region as small-scale industries have developed in the nearby towns. Despite this
economic development, there is unemployment and under employment in most of
the rural areas.
In the last two-and-a-half decades, the CRD has worked on many levels; primarily
committed to raising awareness among communities about their rights, it conducts
awareness generation, legal literacy and health awareness programmes for all. To
make this training programme more effective, it has (with funds from the British
Council) developed an audio-visual cell. Additionally, to make women economically
self-reliant, the CRD has provided training for women in simple but useful
traditional as well as non-traditional skills. Since 1983, the CRD has conducted
several skill development programmes, with funds provided by the District Rural
Development Agency (DRDA), under the Training Rural Youth for Self
Employment (TRYSEM) scheme. Through this programme, over a thousand
women and children, youth have received training in book-binding, stationery
manufacturing, carpentry, block printing, tailoring, weaving, embroidery, machine
knitting and masonry work as well as radio, stove, sewing machine repair. To
enable these people to market their skills the CRD has helped them to develop a
cooperative managed locally.
Recognizing that the empowerment of women requires multiple inputs, the
interventions made by the CRD are multi-varied:1) it has conducted gender
sensitization programmes for a local bureaucracy; 2) it has provided pre-school
education and crèches for children of working mothers in tribal villages. 3) it has
provided legal/family counseling services (wherein issues of marital violence,
divorce, desertion, separation, alcoholism, and maintenance are resolved); 4) it
has organized health camps; 5) it has established a production centre; and 6) it
has interfaced with the bureaucracy to enable men and especially women from the
entire “taluka” to access the various government schemes.
Unique, but a much required need of our country, and all developing countries is to
take education to the villages – through nurturance and dedication. It can
only be taken on if the universities engage themselves by a willful desire to
pave the inroads literally and figuratively and provide access to the marginalized
Embedded in the concept of CE is the understanding that education should
blend theoretical knowledge with practical experience – perhaps democratize
education thru engagement with the communities.
It must be the initiative of the university to make higher education responsive to
the needs of the community – to the grassroots of their existence. The engaged
university must work towards evolving a “learning laboratory” in the field – the
performing arena. These experiments will articulate the commitment to the
process of socio-economic and political transformation e.g. the nationalist
movement of India by Gandhi.
Need based surveys are inevitable. Although some problems may be staring us in
the face! To give the survey its potential and progress, one needs the study, as
the result will be consequence to action-programmes. Good intensive work will be
contingent to community-need fulfillment.
The University must develop mobile AV programmes, provide training in traditional
skills to keep them alive. A major enabling mechanism would be to develop
several skill development programmes, enabling employment through ”cottage
Here, training the youth students of the university for such involvement is essential.
As the above products must be marketed, such skills too must be exercised and
perhaps for economic reliance, cooperatives be formed, micro lending schemes be
drawn up, and self-help groups be formed to locate new occupations.
Focused group must work on sex education considering the huge threat of
prostitutionalized spread of AIDS, and promiscuity, and incest by mores, beliefs,
and or human savageness, leading to this deadly disease.
Various areas of health camps must be a regular feature for CE. The sensitization
of local bureaucracy, and a neutral interface with the bureaucracy for government
schemes must be facilitated by the university.
Financial support from World Organizations, local Governmental resources, Trusts,
Industry etc. must become the facilitators
The colleges/ universities may adopt entire communities, and the respective
students of the institute are involved in all the phases on empowerment and
enabling modes. This presupposes pre-training of students, for action,
implementation, monitoring and evaluation.
Each department may locate its areas of specialization for CE, wherever possible
in their subject curriculum. Multi departmental, multi college collaborative work is a
strong possibility, and must not be overlooked.
CE must be a continuous process, thus Continuing Adult Education programmes
must be a constant factor, along with other “four to fourteen”, and adolescent and
youth community programmes.
Students be encouraged to be involved during vacations.
Academic work in universities must have CE in its curriculum, in its post graduate
teaching, design and conduct orientation courses and refresher courses, seminars,
workshops and conferences on CE is a must. Resultant publications must emanate
to make public various achievements of CE. An engaged university must
constantly conduct training needs assessment, identify trainers, provide training of
trainers, and assess them thru certification or merit rating for reinforcement.
Policies may be evolved for planning for bureaucracy / governmental vision, for up-
As mentioned above training of workers is as important as identifying locals to be a
part of the implementation programme – an hierarchical working be planned into
each activity. Most relevant to this is Environment Building for the motivation of
students and the community, for the latter a faith building exercise is a must, prior
to the Teaching-Learning Process. The basic leader trainers must have sustained
interest, continuous enthusiasm and courage to face the rural hazards of living and
facing the folklore. Confidence and willing cooperation must be won from the
locals their faith and acceptance in our programmes must be the seeds, if we have
to reap a harvest in CE by HE. The responsibility of the rural programme is not a
single faceted one – it is not only multifaceted but kaleidoscopic in nature, because
HE‟s commitment to provide help is not only for material welfare, but for improving
quality of life and perhaps a new belief structure for the rurals, in a frame of social
action and change.
Our students must be like the Peace Corps Youth, or the Gandhian Social Worker
for CE to be the channel of HE for including the Excluded Concepts of Integration
and Inclusion will work, leading towards self-sustaining growth with justice.
A critical assessment of the activities of the SNDT CRD since 1981 indicates that it
has worked closely with the state government, central government as well as the
various funding agencies to initiate social change in the region. Acting as a
catalyst, it has interfaced with the government to ensure that the various
government schemes reach the poorer section of society.
Our core objectives may remain as follows:
To sensitize the community on gender issues;
To enable the community to have a knowledge of their rights;
To develop employment/income generation opportunities for women and
To enhance their earning capacities through vocational/skill training
courses; To build entrepreneurship, (this would include knowledge of
banking, management of small enterprises);
To provide legal aid and family counseling services; and
To encourage all, especially women to actively participate in the local self-
To inflame the communities with AIDS – AWARENESS programmes.
Another strategy that SNDT has adopted is to organize women into Self Help
Groups (SHGs). It is proposed that the villagers of these SHGs will (through a
series of systematic training programmes) be introduced to the concept of saving
and internal lending to meet their consumption and economic needs. In course of
time, these groups will be able to avail of bank loans to start micro-enterprises.
Some of the additional in-puts that these groups will require are skill training in
banking, management of small enterprises and vocational training. In course of
time, we propose to develop partnership with the industries to up-scale the locals‟
earning capacities. Finally, in keeping with SNDT‟s core commitment to changing
the prevailing gender relationships in society, we would like to empower women
with knowledge of their rights and deal with some of the more serious issues of
violence against women through the Family Counselling Cell which we have set up
with funds from the Social Welfare Board could be transferred to the entire
community. So far under this programme, we have trained people in vermin-
compost, and provided a beautician course. Few villages have already started
internal lending and availed of loans from the banks. Some of the enterprises that
they have started include : establishment of a general store, a snack bar, a cold
drink stall, and contracts, for decorating pandals.
Each project of CE must intrinsically be able to pass the scrutiny of audit –
academic and otherwise. Operational details must be meticulously paper-
worked at the University level.
Prior to this there must be a total survey of needs in that locale, region. The
culture of the region, the social structure, the mainstay of the land owners and the
land-less, rate of mobility and immigrants, level of employment, areas of
employment, and other such consequential parameters must be objectively and
unobtrusively studied, for true information.
Basically CE must be treated as a rural research initiative and be offered full
nurturance with required infrastructure and man-power, post need based survey.
In fact the University could develop the activity into a full fledged department,
an Area Study Department, an extra-Mural Department, or a Department of Rural
Development by itself – a major step towards Quality Management of CE through a
Centre for CE (Rural Development).
Local leadership must be encouraged. As very often the inside meanderings
and reactions to our well-meaning programmes may be misfits for the “psyche” of
the people. Thus, these locals could also be our “Confederates” per se. The
University team must be the synergy, the catalyst for the CE to be well
managed and successful. Self-help groups be formed.
The quality concept will disperse itself into multi-varied study-areas and subjects of
University studies. The underlying idea in the academicians‟ interest is, we must
recognize that these processes of CE would enrich our own teaching,
research and empirical application back in the field. An interactive, participate
quality enriched management will result.
For Quality Management, it is important to have the professionals and also the
neo-literates involved at all stages of planning – and implementation.
In India, we have the National Service Scheme at collegiate levels to promote
Social Integration. Besides the social benefit the programme effectively reduced
crime and delinquency amongst the collegiate youth. Students began to work on
neighborhoods and communities to improve quality of life. This voluntary
awakening will result in quality sustenance, intrinsically and extrinsically.
The NSS is a developmental scheme, today involves almost two million youth. It is
connected with input of hours of work, and a grace of 10 marks at the annual
examinations, is the bate. But, the students‟ involvement and enthusiasm is so
well received by the academicians and society at large, that the „bate‟ concept
though exists, but intensity of volition and affective involvement, the passionate
involvement has far surpassed the concept of reciprocity.
The objective of NSS is to develop students‟ personalities through participation in
community services and educate them to attain their social consciousness by
these opportunities of CE. It promotes unity and integration of urban and rural.
Most important, it familiarizes the urban student youth to the realities of rural life.
The scheme is more than 40 years old!
Of course, no immediate outstanding advantages were seen – but the social
cost benefit emerged as a strong positive. Often successes here may be non-
tangible at the start, but the byproducts will talk for themselves. Thus positivity
cannot be extracted, it will emerge! CE is, like the polytechnics, the social
commitment, an educational innovation and a fundamental requirement for
educational institutions, who must identify themselves to social goals and applied
As mentioned above, monitoring can be an inbuilt mechanism as in the SNDT
experience, or in other assessment, evaluation programmes mentioned along with
the processes and or mechanisms.
One must be vary of not attempting a sudden coup of Community
Engagement Programmes prescribing fresh labels and merely creating paper
tigers and or ledgers in the communities, as also it would be unhealthy and
possibly dangerous for HE and universities.
A balance of boldness and care coupled with a thoroughness of purpose and
implementation at a slow and stable pace is a safer and yet a soldierly
approach would be ideal.
The resulting development has several objectives i.e. maximization of production
by optimum utilization of natural resources, through appropriate skill management,
maximum employment, minimal inequality, improvement of quality of life,
development participation, social welfare, humanistic evolution of mores, beliefs –
psyche and intellect change!
CE is one of the major salvation modes for the developing countries to dare to
come to the portals of being considered a developed country!