News has just come in from UNESCO, Paris that a new UNESCO Chair on “Community-based Research and Social Responsibility of Higher Education” has been sanctioned. Dr Budd Hall of University of Victoria, Canada and Dr Rajesh Tandon of Society for Participatory Research in Asia, India have been nominated as Co-Chairs of this new initiative.
By approving the setting up of this UNESCO Chair, the global inter-governmental agency responsible for the promotion of higher education has publicly acknowledged the need for strengthening the practices of community-based research in institutions of higher education. It has also signaled the importance of higher education as a public good that must be sensitive to its larger social responsibility. This is the first time in the history of global policy-making on higher education that UNESCO has approved the creation of a stream of work on community-based research and social responsibility on higher education.
In designing the arrangement of Co-chairs, UNESCO has also emphasized the need for north-south partnership in this era of globalization. University of Victoria is a well-known Canadian university with considerable competencies in research and human well-being. Society for Participatory Research in Asia (PRIA) in India is an Asian network of practitioners and facilitators of participatory, community-based research. This combination thus brings complementary institutional resources, capacities and networks, which could bridge the traditional north-south divides.
Dr Budd Hall began his career as an adult educator in Tanzania, and then moved to strengthen the regional and global networks of Participatory Research through the anchoring of International Council for Adult Education, based in Toronto, Canada. Dr Rajesh Tandon began to explore alternative and indigenous knowledge systems while immersed in strengthening local grass-roots rural organisations in southern Rajasthan, after being formally trained in electronics engineering and management. Their partnership spans nearly 35 years of fruitful and practical association in promoting community-based research at grass-roots as a vehicle for the empowerment of the excluded women, indigenous and minority communities.
Efforts to promote community-based research in institutions of higher education have been going on for the past two decades. In India and South Asia, joint conferences and workshops have been conducted with practitioners and researchers in academic settings. PRIA has been active in bringing the methods and tools of community-based research into social sciences and humanities. Likewise, University of Victoria had set-up the first ever Office of Community-based Research under the leadership of Budd. That Office hosted a Community-University expo in 2008, and catalyzed a Global Alliance for Community-engaged Research (GACER). This network has been actively promoting the linkages between the world of practice and the world of research.
At the core of these initiatives is the perspective of democratizing knowledge. In today’s digitalised world, many countries have been pushing to strengthen their ‘knowledge economies’; international patenting regimes under World Trade Organisation (WTO) and others continue to make generation and use of knowledge as a ‘private good’ for personal gain and profits. The ‘Knowledge Democracy’ movement, on the other hand, draws its inspiration from the vantage point of ‘knowledge society’ where all human knowledge is a shared public good for all; it challenges the hegemonic policies, laws and institutions that capture knowledge for private profits and gains.
The announcement of setting-up the UNESCO Chair on Community-based Research and Social Responsibility of Higher Education is timely in this global struggle of ‘knowledge democracy’ movements. It is hoped that the planning of programmes and activities of this Chair would take this perspective in its centrality. Over the next months, as the two Co-chairs work towards developing these programmes, we hope to solicit the active participation of you all who believe in making life-long learning not merely an opportunity for human development, but also a fundamental right for attainment of human freedoms.