Higher Education and Participatory Development

TAYLOR, Peter (2007)

Participatory processes have been identified as one of the most powerful engines to provoke real transformations in higher education institutions, in order to help them, and those with whom they engage, face the growing demands and challenges of an increasingly globalized and environmentally exhausted world. The forthcoming GUNI report will focus on these processes, among other emerging topics. Peter Taylor, the report’s Guest Editor, has prepared for GUNI, with input from a wider international group, an article that both explains and advocates for the need to start embracing participatory development from Universities. 

In November, 2006, a group of academic-practitioners from Asia, Africa, South and North America, and Europe, came together at the University of British Columbia in Canada, to begin a collective inquiry into the theme of Universities and Participatory Development. This group developed a common understanding of participatory development as the process through which people, including those who are poor or marginalized, shape projects, programmes, and policies that affect their lives. It contributes, and responds to, poverty reduction, empowerment, gender equality, social inclusion, respect for human rights, and sustainability.  It is an essential component of good governance, grounds development in people’s cultures and priorities, and is effective across a wide range of sectors— from sanitation, to literacy, to micro-finance.

We shared our belief in the need for a shift away from top-down processes, towards participatory approaches in education, action and research, and bottom-up planning and decision-making processes beginning at the grassroots level. We recognized the benefits of collaborative and participatory processes that link theory with practice, and action with reflection. These approaches can lead to unique and diverse knowledge emerging from local conditions, linked also to knowledge generation at a global level. Such processes have the potential to respond to inequities due to poverty and social injustice by strengthening citizen rights and voice, influencing policy making, enhancing local governance, and improving the accountability and responsiveness of institutions. We recognized also that, throughout the world, knowledge and power influence development processes. Education at all levels plays a critical role as transmitter, reproducer or resistor of a complex weave of knowledge and power relations. Education is itself becoming transformed through changes in its purposes and priorities.
I. A collective vision, purpose and goals for universities and participatory development
Universities and other higher education institutions already make significant contributions to, and benefit from engaging with, participatory development. They could do much more. Engagement helps universities to improve the quality, relevance, and effectiveness of their teaching and research missions. It encourages them to reflect on their role in reproducing inequalities, and to put more energy into finding solutions to challenging social problems.
These changes are influenced by new global standards and the transfer of policies, curricula and methods of assessment between countries. As part of our inquiry, our group elaborated its vision, purpose and goals, which reflect our belief that we must engage proactively in the shaping and development of Universities and Higher Education Institutions that promote good change for all. Our vision is that another world is possible, in which all individuals are recognized both as productive, educated citizens and as potential agents of change. We see universities embodying democratic values, making strong connections between head, heart and hands, and recognizing that their institutional goals go beyond the generation of wealth and advancement of self-recognition. Our purpose is to advocate and support the role of universities, colleges and other institutions of higher learning in:
- training educators, developing pedagogical strategies and teaching and learning processes that contribute to collaborative social learning, for goals of participatory development and social change;
- becoming sites of resistance to unequal power relations;
- strengthening their own democratic planning and governance as other social institutions and development actors confront issues of representation and democratization in the field;
- finding appropriate ways to demystify and make concrete the practice of participation, producing social change which removes economic marginalisation;
- influencing wider structural, institutional and political forces as they educate individuals and local communities.
With this vision and purpose in mind, we imagined the following goals for Universities and Higher Education institutions throughout the world:
- a policy environment that facilitates direct and active engagement in participatory development processes;
- a community of learners, drawn from social, cultural, political and education institutions and civil society, sharing their experience, knowledge, skills and wisdom through an integration of research and practice;
- a curriculum that supports excellence, scholarship, rigour and validity of learning and teaching whilst assuring the rights, inclusion and voice of all;
- a strong and vigorous institutional base that values and encourages the continued well-being and development of all its members.
We identified also a set of guiding principles, essential for further collective work:
- Respecting diverse interpretations of knowledge and beliefs;
- Achieving common understanding, trust, humility and ownership of our actions;
- Recognising the importance of commitment and political will to make change happen;
- Responding to critical problems whilst managing risks responsibly;
- Listening to and hearing the voices of others;
- Sharing control over and access to resources;
- Being accountable for our actions to all those with whom we engage;
- Moving beyond rhetoric to practice;
- Maintaining a reflexive and continuous learning approach to our collective efforts;
- Ensuring that our engagement as outsiders in other contexts is informed by an understanding of our identity, and the potential impact of our own assumptions, beliefs and myths on processes of development and change;
- Involving all interested parties in all stages of the process;
- Reporting results to all parties in understandable language/terms.
II. Words are not enough: key actions are needed
Our goals may be achieved only through actions, which may call upon us, as members of Higher Education institutions, to:
- Advocate for approval by University Governing Bodies that outreach from universities to local communities in both North and South is a high priority; outreach projects or programmes, and any support that facilitates these, should conform to the principles of participatory development;
- Make an inventory of existing university-based participatory development projects and programs, highlighting innovations and good practice;
- Support and engage in processes whereby priorities of participatory development are generated by communities, are informed by local voices and knowledge, and where research protocols are developed by indigenous communities for people, especially outsiders, who want to work with them;
- Promote active engagement of administration, faculty and students in systemic participatory development;
- Work on both outcomes and processes of specific institutional change within the HE sector, such as curriculum change; hiring of persons with participatory development experience; fund-raising; participatory research programme development; advocacy with decision-makers and accreditation bodies; and creating participatory processes inside university;
- Take a strategic view of the growth and evolution of participatory development processes by establishing realistic, yet challenging planning and implementation cycles for institutional strengthening;
- Engage proactively in policy dialogues around development and change processes, at both the local and the global level;
- Produce publicity for participatory development, including campus, academic production and popular communication.
- Work with funding agencies to have participatory principles included in the requirements for funding.
III. Why do Universities have a unique role in undertaking these actions?
Universities and Higher Education Institutions are, by nature, international in their outlook. Their role as producers as well as transmitters of knowledge is important in a globalizing world, as well as in the national contexts in which they operate. Universities must also be willing to be “receivers” of knowledge. We are at a critical moment in our planet’s history, when moral and ethical global and communitarian efforts are needed urgently. Knowledge and the processes of learning are shaped by power relations, and the institutions and forums where teaching and research takes place tend to reinforce the relationship between power and learning – a relationship that often is unequal and defined by those who can gain economically from it.
Universities should be natural defenders of diversity and strong opponents of bland cultural uniformity. They constantly need to be challenged to take up these roles more actively, to foster critical analysis of social issues and avoid an ivory tower approach which excludes the voices of other community members. They are in a strong position to provide and receive opportunities for dialogue on how to counteract the increasing negative power of globalisation over education. One of our greatest challenges is to help universities become spaces where critical analysis of social issues is fostered; and to help them achieve and promote inclusion of the voices of all community members in democratic and policy processes.
IV. Challenging questions that warrant further dialogue
Although benefits of participatory development have been seen throughout the world and are becoming more widespread, it is still the case that many people are not involved in such processes; many universities do not yet engage in ways that we have outlined in this article. Part of the reason for this is that there are still many questions which warrant further dialogue, and we need to continue and nurture a strong and active debate.
For example, how should we strengthen networks of people both inside and outside University contexts, to link and develop relationships between institutions in the North and the South? To what extent can greater political will help to create more opportunities for engagement and collective learning? Should Universities and Higher Education institutions help more in the systematic documentation and demonstration of change? Are they in a position to provide training and education for activists and community organizers, especially helping young people to develop and sustain their energy and idealism for positive change? Can they support research processes by facilitating the sharing of roles by students, staff and members of different communities? And, should they also allow people to access new technologies and other forms of capital usually directed only for powerful enterprises, a process in which they can influence the priorities of the system of production itself? Other questions will undoubtedly emerge as the dialogue around these issues continues.
V. Moving forward
This is a great opportunity to share these ideas through the GUNI newsletter because we appreciate the wide diversity of perspectives on the future of Higher Education, some of which will be reflected in the forthcoming GUNI Report on Higher Education in the World: new challenges and emerging roles for human and social development.
In keeping with our understanding and practice of participatory development, we see the above remarks as the basis for a platform on which further dialogue can take place, rather than a decisive statement. Others who are interested to join our efforts to promote stronger linkages between universities and participatory development are welcome to engage in this collective inquiry, and different opportunities will be created to allow this dialogue to continue.
In particular, the theme of the 11th UNESCO-APEID International Conference, 12-14 December, Bangkok, Thailand, will be Reinventing Higher Education: Toward Participatory and Sustainable Development, at which the issues presented in this short article will be explored in much greater depth.

About the author

Dr. Peter Taylor
Guest Editor of the forthcoming Higher Education in the World GUNI Report
Institute of Development Studies at the University of Sussex, Brighton, United Kingdom

NOTE: This article has been elaborated by Peter Taylor, with the collaboration of Reuben Aggor, Debbie Bell, Peter Boothroyd, Grace Bunyi, Pirom Chantaworn, Myles Clough, Shafik Dharamsi, Margo Fryer, Jingjai Hanchanlash. Fernando Kleiman. Shelley Jones, Alice Ndide, Margot Parkes, Sheldon Shaeffer, Juliet Tembe, drawing on the perspectives presented and explored at the International Forum on Universities and Participatory Development, Vancouver, 20-22 November 2006.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007


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