Social justice should be the new focus for universities

Universities around the world should make social justice the “new normal” for higher education in a post-COVID world, according to Australian Catholic University Associate Vice-Chancellor (Queensland) Professor Jim Nyland.

Speaking to 80 delegates at the second biennial ACU and DePaul Conference on Community Engagement and Service-Learning last month, Professor Nyland said the global pandemic brought to light the communities affected by COVID-19 and those that are directly influenced by teaching, research, learning, and projects conducted at ACU.

“What coronavirus did was hold up a mirror to the societies and communities we serve that are being impacted by the social and economic crisis,” Professor Nyland said.

“Our society coming out of the pandemic will not be the same as our society going in.”

However, universities that committed to the educational approach of community engagement and service-learning, like ACU, could help struggling societies recover exponentially from the pandemic.

“This conference demonstrates we are opting for engagement rather than disengagement,” Professor Nyland said.

“This is most likely if we continue to have open discourse and educational debate to advance the notion that education’s new normal focuses on social justice for an improved social result.”

As well as the keynote address by Professor Jim Nyland, the ACU and DePaul Conference included 22 presentations from academic, student, and community partners that explored the creative and committed ways that university and community partnerships pivoted during the pandemic.

This included the experiences of ACU lecturer Dr Mellita Jones in facilitating online learning for primary school students from the Solomon Islands, many of whom had limited experience with computers.

ACU’s National Community Engagement Manager Dr Matthew Pink said the conference highlighted the value of the digital experience in facilitating community engagement and service-learning opportunities, which are traditionally undertaken in-person.

“Many universities needed to flip the long-standing idea that community engagement and service-learning was necessarily inferior online,” Dr Pink said.

“It has also opened us up to hybrid models of engagement that include both online and in-person interactions.”

A university that pivots during a crisis also has an opportunity to teach its students the importance of adapting their learning.

“Service-learning and community engagement is a key means to learn through activating the mission while they complete their studies,” Dr Pink said.

“Such experiential learning is also important for developing their abilities to work with people from diverse backgrounds.”

For Catholic universities, community engagement and service-learning responds directly to Pope Francis’s call for education to be one of the tools to make the world a better place post-COVID-19.

For World Literacy Day in September, the pontiff posted on Twitter: “Education is one of the most effective ways of making our world and history more human. Education is above all a matter of love and responsibility handed down from one generation to another.”

“Service-learning and community engagement are wonderful educational tools to respond to Pope Francis’s call to ‘make our world and history more human’ and build a better post-COVID world,” Dr Pink said.

ACU, which has seven campuses across Australia and one in Rome, and DePaul University, based in Chicago, USA, held their first conference in partnership at ACU’s Melbourne Campus in 2019.

Read a full summary of the ACU and De Paul Conference for 2021, and get access to all the presentation slides, here.


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