Towards a 21st century approach to civic engagement locally and globally. A conversation with Richard Teare

Towards a 21st century approach to civic engagement locally and globally. A conversation with Richard Teare

Why is it that in the 21st century the place where a person is born still determines their life chance? The purpose of the Global University for Lifelong Learning (GULL) is to facilitate self-directed lifelong learning and as one response, Richard’s recent book Lifelong action learning: A journey of discovery and celebration at work and in the community  (2018) outlines how a systematic approach can be provided to those who are traditionally excluded  – the low paid, the marginalized and the millions of people who are living in poverty.

In this interview for Transform, Richard Teare, co-founder and President of the Global University for Lifelong Learning talks about GULL’s non-profit network movement that aims to facilitate self-help and its role in a research project that aims to develop an inclusive framework for self-directed lifelong learning led by a group of South African public universities.

Why did you establish GULL
During the years when I worked in universities I rarely reflected on the fact that they were privileged places and that many of our students came from families where one or more parents had been to university. Naturally then, they encourage their children to follow this route for better career prospects after graduation. I began thinking more deeply about the concept of inclusion during the late 1990s when I first saw for myself the myriad difficulties faced by a high proportion of the world’s population in developing countries and in particular, the limited educational provision available to them. The experience gained as a professor at four UK universities gave me the confidence to set-up the Global University for Lifelong Learning – a very different kind of institution that draws on local and traditional knowledge to encourage community participants to find solutions to their own problems.

Why does GULL focus on self-help?
As the poorest say that they can only dream about further and higher education because they lack qualifications, money and often educational infrastructure, a different approach was needed. This began to take shape during a visit to the UK in 2004 by the newly appointed Governor-General of Papua New Guinea (PNG), Sir Paulias Matane. He had grown up in a remote subsistence community in East New Britain Province, PNG. As both his parents died when he was a young boy, he was raised by his elderly grandparents and at the age of 16, he was able to attend school for the first time. He later became a teacher, headmaster, schools inspector and then national superintendent of teacher education. After that, he served his country as a permanent secretary, an ambassador and a high commissioner (among other roles). Given his disadvantaged background, Paulias had realized early in life that he’d need to be focused, disciplined and self-directed, he became an inspirational lifelong learner and on 26 May 2004, he was elected as the Eighth Governor-General of PNG. His story is relevant to GULL’s work because we try to mirror his journey from poverty by encouraging GULL participants to discover and use their human potential to the fullest – first to help themselves and their families and second, to help others. This is encapsulated in GULL’s motto: ‘Enabling YOU to make a difference in OUR world’.

The photograph taken in August 2014, is of Richard with members of a bamboo music band in a remote part of Bougainville, an autonomous region of Papua New Guinea. The men played all the tunes on different lengths of bamboo while the women performed fan dances.

How does GULL facilitate self-help?
To provide hope and opportunity we needed to create a credible system that would incentivize the excluded to begin a journey that would help them to discover their unique gifts and talents, develop them and make practical, tangible changes in their own lives and in the communities in which they live. Over several years of discussions with Sir Paulias, we concluded that this approach could not be ‘accredited’ in the conventional way and so he and Sir Michael Somare, PNG’s founding Prime Minister and the serving Prime Minister at the time, signed a ‘statement of recognition’ offered in perpetuity for GULL’s professional awards – all of which require verification that pathway-specific outcomes have been attained prior to certification. Next, we sought to establish a decentralized network as a deliberate strategy to facilitate national and local ownership at the lowest possible cost. We wanted to build the network on traditional know-how and knowledge so that anyone could participate. GULL’s approach is based on what we call action learning pathways. This reflects the idea that learning should be an active lifelong journey centred on the unique needs and aspirations of its participants.

It is now more than eleven years since the official launch of GULL on Friday 5 October, 2007 in the State Function Room, National Parliament House, Port Moresby, PNG. One of our guests that day from the World Bank made a memorable comment on the significance of our initiative. In his speech he said: ‘We people from the third world – I’m a Kenyan – often feel like we are sinking into a swamp – we lift our hands in the air and hope that someone will come along and pull us out. GULL is different – it is like a low hanging branch – you reach up and pull yourself out’. I quite often share this explanation because it is simple and clear and by implication, the world needs much greater provision for self-help. If the networks were in place to support this, people everywhere could contribute what they can afford (avoiding entitlement and dependency) and begin a journey towards becoming more confident about what they are able to do and more skilled in equipping themselves and responding to life’s challenges. If it were easy, it would be happening already – but a shift is needed. Personally, I think that there is still too much emphasis on training and not enough on equipping people to find their own solutions. This transition requires a system, structure and process – the very things that GULL has been refining over the years by working with social entrepreneurs, NGOs and other agencies in many communities around the world.

Do you have an example that illustrates the value of self-help?
Yes, there are many – some of which are documented on the GULL website –  a good example of the power of self-directed action learning is illustrated by a project facilitated by the international NGO World Vision with GULL in Burundi. Nationally, Burundi struggles with high child mortality due to Malaria and malnutrition. In an effort to tackle malnutrition, a World Vision facilitator working in a rural area with eight community volunteers had the idea of starting a soya milk production facility. The opportunity to participate and become a GULL student was met with much enthusiasm by community volunteers and several months on, she was working with 105 community volunteers. During a review visit to the soya milk production facility ten months or so after scaling-up the project, community members told us that as an outcome of their GULL project, they had eradicated child malnutrition in their commune – a claim that was independently verified by World Vision. They had secured this outcome by organizing the distribution of soya milk to vulnerable children over a wide geographical area spanning 29 hills and valleys. They decided initially to distribute soya milk free of charge to the parents of sick children and when the problem of malnutrition had been addressed, the milk would then be sold to parents to prevent re-occurrence and to ensure that their project would be self-funding and sustainable. If families did not have the funds to buy the soya milk, the community’s benevolent fund covered the cost and a community team began working with the family until they were able to generate enough income to pay for the soya milk from their own resources. The soya milk production facility is now producing a cash surplus for the community and they have used their profits to increase the production capacity. After securing these valuable and tangible outcomes, the soya milk production team had earned their GULL professional certificates and many hundreds of people came to witness the certification ceremony in a football stadium – the only venue large enough for so many curious and excited observers!

Does GULL work with academic institutions?
Yes and I am hoping that the network of universities using GULL for community engagement and service learning will increase in the next year or so. Earlier, I outlined GULL’s mission to those without access to conventional forms of further and higher education and as I reflect on the highs and lows of our efforts to respond to this challenge, I wondered whether it would be possible to work with universities on a new agenda for inclusion. This is with a view to shaping a 21st century paradigm for lifelong learning that embraces both traditional notions of academic excellence and community-led holistic development. How would it be if universities were able to facilitate practical and valuable development in and amongst marginalized communities – alongside the excellent work that they are renowned for on the campus? As the GULL system is designed for the former purpose and does not compete with academic programmes, it can be customized to meet specific needs without affecting its recognized status. Further, as a non-profit initiative, it can be operationalized at low cost by universities interested in working with GULL.

Has GULL’s self-help approach been used in Australia?
Yes. In 2010, Griffith University’s coordinator of community partnerships began to make use of GULL’s approach to engage with and enable Samoan community leaders to experience action learning for themselves. As a means of sustaining change, project teams embedded a system for action learning using the GULL model of community engagement based on equality and inclusivity. Our primary objective was to widen access to educational opportunities for Samoan families, whose children were reported to be under-achieving at school and under-represented in higher education. This successful pilot led to the introduction of a university-sponsored programme (initially for Samoan families) that sought to widen the community’s participation in higher education. In one of the periodic reviews, a community leader said: ‘I’m sure that action learning is the way forward for the community – it liberates people, in the sense that at the outset, participants might have relatively low self-esteem and as they journey with this, they can move forwards and strengthen their self-image and self-worth. I also think that action learning offers the prospect of liberation from poverty because it facilitates a change in mindset. It is my belief that unless and until people are liberated from what holds them back, they will not develop and progress and I have discovered that the GULL action learning process does this’.

Can you envision a wider-ranging partnership with universities in the future?
I hope so because there are many millions of excluded people and I truly don’t believe that the place where a person is born should determine whether (or not) they have access to educational opportunity. Building on the initiative in Australia, I spoke at the Action Learning & Action Research Association World Congress in South Africa (November, 2015) and invited delegates from academic institutions to consider piloting GULL in support of their outreach work with communities. Several South African universities said they would like to run a pilot and we began at a large primary school serving a township near to Port Elizabeth, in a shelter for homeless women in the city of Bloemfontein, facilitated by the University of the Free State and in the community of Gatelapele supported by North-West University. The pilots were as follows:

Sapphire Road Primary School, Port Elizabeth: A group of 14 school staff and community volunteers completed the initial stage of a process designed to enable some of the 47 people (aged 19-30) volunteering at the school to enhance their employability. The longer-term aim is to cascade lifelong action learning to the wider community where levels of unemployment are high. Building on these foundations, ‘Luniko’ (giving and receiving) sought to develop resources that school volunteers could use to engage with the community and in particular, to help improve parental learning support for school children. The initial group was facilitated by North-West University and nearby Nelson Mandela University is facilitating wider implementation.

Bloem Shelter, Bloemfontein: An early success in piloting GULL occurred at the University of the Free State (UFS) and following the annual UFS Community Award Ceremony in October 2016, UFS News reported: ‘Through its partnership with GULL, UFS has (and continues) to work with women from Bloem Shelter, an organization that provides assistance to homeless women and children from diverse walks of life. The women are being equipped with the necessary skills and knowledge they needed to become self-sufficient – an experience that has yielded positive, constructive change in the women’s lives. Bloem Shelter now has a development pathway to enable residents to move from dependent to independent living via micro enterprise’.

Gatelapele youth leadership development: North-West University (NWU) decided to pilot GULL among community members who are themselves facilitating leadership development for young people. In the Gatelapele community, youth account for two thirds of the unemployed and an intervention was needed to steer them away from crime and substance abuse and instead help them to identify and use their gifts and skills in a more productive way. The pilot participants worked on their personal and leadership skills and on devising ways to cascade their learning to the wider community they serve. Speaking on behalf of the award recipients at the NWU with GULL event, on 19 October 2017, Michael Matlapeng said:  ‘GULL should be embraced by every community development facilitator as it offers a strength-based approach that enhances on-going development’.

Given the positive outcomes, will GULL’s work with South African universities expand?
Yes because South Africa’s public universities are expected to engage with disadvantaged communities in their vicinity and townships where unemployment, drugs, violence and a sense of hopelessness prevail. The creation of an effective university-community partnership model for South Africa based on the GULL system is an exciting prospect – not least because in time, it could be adopted elsewhere. The fact that other universities are also offering to facilitate inclusive access is an important indicator.

Do you think that universities could become inclusive hubs for both academic and community-based lifelong learning?
Yes I do! In fact, a group of five South African universities are collaborating on a pilot extension and research-based evaluation of the effectiveness of an emergent university-community partnership model based on the GULL system. The aim is to develop, track and evaluate multiple second phase GULL system pilots, write-up the results and provide the model to other universities in South Africa and internationally. GULL includes its own award system and this is beneficial in the sense that it is separate from the host university’s own academic awards.

The initiative is led by Research Professor Lesley Wood of North-West University and in November 2018 she received confirmation of substantial international funding for the project. The study is set in the context of community-based research (CBR) – a recognized form of research since the 1970s – though little development has occurred in terms of how the university approaches it. The reality is that research policies, procedures, rules and regulations are still written for university-led research, rather than being geared to enabling full engagement with community stakeholders. In short, the research and the knowledge generated mostly benefits the university. Although benefits to the community are explained in academic articles to justify the ‘success’ of the university’s involvement, relatively little attention is given to sustainable learning in the community at the end of the project. In view of this, there is a need for a framework that facilitates public recognition of the learning and development of community partners, one that does not involve them having to enrol in a formal education programme that has cost implications and access requirements.

In summary, even though universities may want to be more actively involved in community development, strategies and frameworks on how to do this are lacking. I hope that the pilot extension and evaluation will enable the South African research team led by Professor Wood and her colleagues to show how GULL’s framework, structure and process enables universities to partner meaningfully with community organizations in pursuit of sustainable development goals. This would: yield a practical option for developing the capacity of academics and community organizations to conduct CBR; allow for the creation of partnerships that are based on mutual understandings of ethical conduct and processes; and officially certify the learning and development of community members.

Summary points

  1. In marginalized communities where school age children are under-achieving, it may be the case that their parents lacked educational opportunity and so they lack the confidence or the foresight to encourage their children. Our pilot work in Brisbane revealed that one solution is to facilitate personal and professional development for community leaders so that they can share the process with others.
  2. Uniquely in GULL’s, South Africa’s public universities are mandated and funded to work with under-privileged communities and the staff and many students involved in community engagement and service learning are dedicated and committed to this cause. Given this backdrop, the opportunity to use the GULL system has been embraced.
  3. Piloting work with universities in South Africa and elsewhere clearly shows that academic and community-focused learning systems can co-exist and because GULL has an independent mandate, it can sit alongside (and not in competition with) the host university’s own academic systems, procedures and regulations.
  4. GULL pilot outcomes to-date show that university-led facilitation of the GULL system is both engaging and effective in enabling non-traditional forms of learning to flourish. Participants have in some cases made astonishing progress from difficult starting points (such as a shelter for homeless women) towards greater self-reliance and financial independence.

Dr Richard Teare can be contacted via the GULL website – – Contact Us.

Teare, R. (2018) Lifelong action learning: A journey of discovery and celebration at work and in the community. Retrieved from Also available from (Australia); Kindle e-book AUS$3.99; Paperback AUS$12.65