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Community partners' experiences of higher education service-learning in a community engagement module

Martina Jordaan (Mamelodi campus, University of Pretoria, Pretoria, South Africa)
Nita Mennega (Informatics, University of Pretoria, Pretoria, South Africa)

Journal of Applied Research in Higher Education

ISSN: 2050-7003

Article publication date: 1 March 2021

Issue publication date: 27 January 2022




The purpose of this empirical research paper is to investigate the self-perceived role of the community partner of a higher education service-learning and community engagement module.


A qualitative approach was followed by distributing a questionnaire to the community partners of a community engagement module and coding the responses using ATLAS.ti. A total of 36 responses were received from community partners who work with students enrolled in a compulsory undergraduate community-based project module at the University of Pretoria's Faculty of Engineering, Built Environment and Information Technology.


The community partners share a common interest in the students' education. They are experts in their fields and can share their knowledge with the students and the university. Through these partnerships, long-term reciprocal relationships can develop. Community partners can become co-educators and partners in education. The pragmatist representations of community partners can be challenged when they understand their own stakes in service-learning or community engagement projects. This better aids higher education institutes in the management and evaluation of service-learning and community engagement pedagogies and curricula.

Research limitations/implications

Two main limitations underlie this study. Firstly, this research is based on data from one community module at a single university. Although a large number of students are registered in the module, the study would be improved by conducting it at more than one university countrywide. Secondly, the study was performed during the first coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) lockdown the country experienced. This was a completely unexpected event for which everyone was totally unprepared. Many of the community partners lacked the resources to receive or respond to an online questionnaire. The nature of the lockdown prevented the researchers from reaching these community partners for a face-to-face interview. The voice of these community partners is, therefore, silent.

Practical implications

The community partners reiterated their need to be seen as equal partners in the module and appreciated being part of a group of non-profit enterprises working together with a university to pursue a set of common goals. However, their status as peers depends on their willingness and ability to contribute sufficiently to the structure and demands of the service-learning module. The community partners who were able and willing to orientate each group of students to their organisation's mission and objectives, and who executed their roles according to the course requirements, experienced the greatest success in terms of project effectiveness and efficiency, and also in terms of future benefits when students returned to volunteer or provide donations. Given time, these community partners grew into an equal partner with the university's stakeholders, where both their own needs and those of the students were met during the various service-learning projects.

Social implications

Since all respondents in this study are non-profit organisations, the financial assistance and free labour afforded to them by the students are of paramount importance. The community partners also understand the longer-term value implications of successful student projects, as some students return of their free will to volunteer their services when gainfully employed after graduation.


Community engagement projects are rarely investigated from the community partner's point of view. This paper elicited their responses and examined them through the lens of Fraser's theory of social justice (Fraser, 2009).



Jordaan, M. and Mennega, N. (2022), "Community partners' experiences of higher education service-learning in a community engagement module", Journal of Applied Research in Higher Education, Vol. 14 No. 1, pp. 394-408.



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