‘What are universities good for?’: UP successfully co-hosts the first digital University Social Responsibility Summit

Posted on February 09, 2021

Universities have a mission to figure out what they are good for in order to improve their contributions to society. 

This was the overarching sentiment at the three-day University Social Responsibility (USR) Summit for 2021 that was co-hosted by the University of Pretoria (UP) virtually. 

The summit is organised annually by the USR Network (USRN), which was established in 2015 with the aim of bringing together thought leaders to exchange ideas, resources, practices of varied scope and scale to steer global discussion and development of USR in higher education. The broader conversations also covered topics such as the transformation of higher education institutions and innovation.

The conference, which took place from 3-5 February 2021, was more than 21 hours of earnest discussion and contributions featuring over 30 academics from higher education institutions across the world. Ideas on how social responsibility programmes and projects can be used in innovative and meaningful ways within the university community and the broader society in which the institutions exist were shared.

Professor Chris Brink, the Emeritus Vice-Chancellor of Newcastle University in the United Kingdom, made this contribution during the first keynote address of the summit under the topic ‘The changing mission of higher education’:

“At a much more fundamental level, a sort of underground movement of the tectonic plates of higher education is happening. There is a profound change happening in our mission of higher education; what it is that we are here to do,” Prof Brink said.

He added that there are two key questions that academia needs to concern itself with, not only at the institutional level but at an individual level as well.

“The first is, ‘What are we good at?’ This is a question we are very practiced at responding to. Any vice-chancellor, any professor if asked this can quickly and easily read off a list of accomplishments. We’re so good at that that I think we lost track for a while of another question that is equally important, and that is the question ‘What are we good for?’”

‘Becoming a socially responsible university’

Prof Brink said that academia has come to the realisation that along with upholding academic freedom, it needs to uphold the principle that institutions have academic responsibilities to fulfil.

“An example of this is that the work of the USRN itself is a manifestation of that change to add responsibility to academic freedom. This is true both in principle and in practice. The quote I want to share with you to illustrate this comes from the USRN website, ‘University Social Responsibility (USR) extends the traditional mission of universities in an endeavour to develop solutions for economic, social, and environmental problems in society’. That bit about developing solutions is the principal argument. In practice, every time the USRN has a summit meeting like this one, the programme is filled with examples of what universities are doing to act on their social responsibility; how they intend to make a positive contribution in society,” he said.

Sharing a bit of what UP does to honour its social responsibilities was Gernia van Niekerk. Van Niekerk, who is currently the manager of the Community Engagement division in the Department of Education Innovation at the University, gave insight into this under the topic ‘Becoming a socially responsible university’.

“UP started with community service in 1920 following the Spanish flu pandemic and the world-wide [economic] depression. Large-scale community engagement at our university is embedded into the curriculum, but it took years to develop, establish and involve all academic fields and disciplines for community development purposes. [Today], our model involves about 300 academic modules, covers nine faculties, 110 lecturers are involved and 30 000 students participate in it annually, covering about 40 hours of community service each. We involve about 1 000 community partners and have about 3 000 projects. This is only at a cost of about 12 euros (R215.49) per student, per year. With this, UP contributes about 4 million euros (R71 840 561.92) per year to the local economy in terms of working hours, and 4 billion euros (R71 845 200 000) in terms of the imputed value of the community work,” she explained.

Bringing in the topic of the widespread effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on the higher education sector, Professor Angelina Yuen-Tsang, Hon. Professor in the Department of Applied Social Sciences and former vice-president (Student and Global Affairs) at The Hong Kong Polytechnic University, spoke on ‘The transformative power of higher education in fostering global connectedness and solidarity amidst the COVID-19 pandemic’.

“Every time there is a crisis, there is opportunity. I believe that it was Winston Churchill who, after World War Two, said: ‘Never let a good crisis go to waste’. I like the statement by former statesman Nelson Mandela too, ‘Education is the most powerful weapon you can use to change the world’. I see the pandemic as an opportunity, even though it has caused a lot of destruction to our world, to our families, communities and universities. I think we should look at it from a positive angle, and try to see how we can make use of this crisis as a way to transform the world and to change education,” Prof Yuen-Tsang said.

*Videos of the various sessions of the summit will be made available on YouTube. Visit the USRN website for more details.

- Author Masego Panyane

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