What are the roles of a university in society? In many places, universities serve as institutions that empower society with knowledge, skills, and desired competencies. They are mandated to develop essential qualities among members of the society, build the intellectual capability of scholars and students, and effectively function in the community.
Learning and teaching in university should not only focus on making students grasping the content of subjects they specialize in, but also equipping them with the skills to deal with the knowledge. They should be trained to relate to the subjects they learn in university with various social milieus. They have to be highly employable by having good employment opportunities and being highly beneficial to their general society.
By and large, universities have been mandated to play crucial roles in intellectual, educational, and social development at various levels of society, carrying the responsibility to champion activities that involve academics, students, and community members. In this regard, the success of a university lies in the synergistic actions of the university community and the participation of multiple external parties. This concept is regarded as the University Community Engagement (UCE).
UCE can be implemented through teaching and learning processes, research, innovation, publication, consultancy, training, conference activities, students' programs, and industrial training. Hence, community engagement not only involves the general or public community but also other strategic groups of the community. Universities should conduct their academic activities by collaborating with the learned (e.g., professors of other universities, scholars, scientists, or researchers), professionals (e.g., industrial players/ business community), and the public community (e.g., residents in the local neighborhood).
UCE involves activities that are linked to the university's three main functions, namely intellectual (research and publication), social (training of workforce/professionals), and educational functions (teaching). This is the sine qua non or an essential condition to establish and provide opportunities for academics and students in relating their knowledge and skills with the societal and community context. Community-engaged activities by universities are strategic avenues for academics, researchers, and students of various disciplines of knowledge to dive into participation with the community and apply knowledge, principles, and theories in their field to build, innovate, improve, or develop the society.
An essential practice in UCE is that the community needs must inform any activities. For instance, any planned interventions to develop or change society must consider the needs of the people, obtainable through research by academics or students. The data gathered in the research could then be conveyed to relevant agencies for further actions; be used to inform the formulation of suitable programs; be used as bases to improve the capabilities of academics, students, and community members; be used as bases to design development, change or improvement plan; or be reported through journal or book publications. The identified community issues could also inform universities on the next course of action, necessitating their collaboration with relevant agencies to address the issues.
UCE is broader than community service projects. The former requires a reasonable extent of engagement between the university community and the external community. UCE activities are supportive of the effort to develop or enhance scholarship among academics, employability among students, and quality of life among the community. UCE activities could provide avenues to promote genuinely impactful academic research and student learning. The community-engaged activities could also substantiate a university's function by the dissemination and application of knowledge or research findings.
In conclusion, a university is a significant agent for change and growth in the community. It is a center where knowledge is generated, students are taught, and they transfer the virtues to the community. Members of society should be given access to the university by engaging them in activities and services that could benefit both humanity and the university community. Academics in the university must stay true to the responsibilities in educating or edifying students who attend university education to become effective agents of change and development when they return to their community.
Shukran Abdul Rahman is a professor at the Department of Psychology, International Islamic University Malaysia (IIUM); and Dean of the Kulliyyah of Islamic Revealed Knowledge and Human Sciences. He teaches and conducts research in the area of Industrial and Organisational Psychology.