UP EXPERT OPINION: Socially engaged universities are the model of the future

Posted on January 31, 2023

When does a trend become a movement? When does innovation become standard practice? University social responsibility (USR) has shifted from being an interesting trend to becoming a real movement and a core feature of higher education around the world.

This reality was confirmed in abundance at the International USR Summit “Education and Action for a Sustainable Future” last month that provided a valuable opportunity to share the latest university social responsibility insights, promote the best USR practices, and most importantly, chart our shared vision for the future.

Periodic convenings often benchmark changes, or lack thereof, of the topic at hand. The summit told a story of growing scale and impacts, and of increasing international collaboration.

Hosted by Hong Kong Polytechnic University, and with a special focus on service-learning, the summit was planned and conducted in partnership with three other networks, the University Alliance of the Silk RoadAurora Universities Network and the Open Society University Network.

Trends and continuing progress

Major trends in university social responsibility include first and foremost substantial growth in what is known as service learning.

Service learning is defined as “a form of experiential learning where students apply academic knowledge and critical thinking skills to address genuine community needs”. In all parts of the world, universities have expanded dramatically the integration of assessed programmes, units and projects that support social responsibility-driven service activities into their curricula.

Especially significant is the continuing expansion of service learning across the full range of academic disciplines.

The exciting result: our institutions are graduating growing numbers of skilled professional leaders who are also citizen scientists, citizen engineers and citizen humanists – people who have mastered technical and professional skills, but are also committed to working with communities to build the sort of just, sustainable and healthy communities our world so badly needs.

A second key trend is that, in just the last few years, the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) have become a nearly universal framework for guiding and assessing the social responsibility efforts of institutions of higher education.

It would be hard to overstate the powerful influence of this development since the SDGs have offered higher education a common international language to demonstrate its impact on democratically agreed priorities in the world in a way that transcends borders, sectors and academic specialisations.

We would like to salute University World News’ SDGs Hub as a valuable vehicle for fostering mutual learning on this front.

Thirdly, it is striking to witness the steady growth of collaboration among universities in their social responsibility endeavours.

A decade ago, there were a handful of inter-university networks devoted to this topic. Today the number of these coalitions has at least doubled and the longer established alliances – like the Talloires Network of Engaged Universities and the International Consortium on Higher Education Civic Responsibility and Democracy – continue to exert influential leadership.

In addition, the attention being paid to social responsibility functions by associations with a broader mandate – including the International Association of Universities and the Association of Commonwealth Universities – is notable.

Our recent conference also reflected upon alternative approaches to assessing and recognising institutional performance on USR. What constitutes effective institutional policies and practices is becoming increasingly clear. Essential best practices include:

• Building faculty capabilities. Institutions that are achieving the most in their social responsibility work are those that are investing most heavily in elevating professors’ abilities to integrate social responsibility in their teaching and to apply their research to improve community conditions.

• Embedding social responsibility in the curriculum in order to produce graduates who are engaged citizens.

• Recognising excellence of engaged teaching and research in the evaluation and promotion of faculty.

• Partnering fully with community partners in the planning and conduct of programmes.

• Making USR an explicit priority in institutional strategic planning. Conceptualising and organising social responsibility efforts as a key feature of the core functions of teaching and research and not as a separate third pillar.

• Creating a high-level administrative position in charge of driving social responsibility-oriented teaching and research and establishing a university-wide council or other mechanisms for coordinating social responsibility work.

Future opportunities and priorities

We see several promising opportunities to advance university social responsibility in the next few years:

• Reach next levels of scale – to grow the number of institutions that embrace service learning and engaged research in order to multiply several-fold the number of university graduates who are active agents of community development.

• Demonstrate and assess educational outcomes – to move from rhetoric to evidence, to build a solid base of data about the values, skills and knowledge that students learn through service-learning.

• Build a persuasive collective case for greater investment in higher education based on societal impacts.

• Expand social responsibility-focused virtual teaching and learning – while the pandemic has restricted in-person gatherings, it has increased and enhanced virtual interaction and collaboration. We have a marvellous opportunity to build upon this momentum. Check out the OSUN Collaborative Courses. Imagine a global set of online courses on social responsibility topics taught by faculty from many countries and taken for academic credit by students on all continents.

• Strengthen institutions’ capabilities to achieve the SDGs through the USRN-led online programme being developed by the University of Manchester.

• Combine the distinctive advantages of the Impact Rankings and those of the collaborative approach shown by the Carnegie community engagement classification initiative.

These are not fanciful ideas because they are happening already.

While the future of university social responsibility looks bright, there are, of course, significant and persistent challenges – policies that steer universities in the direction of other priorities, limited financial resources and the harsh realities of war and intensive conflicts in many regions.

We must recognise these obstacles and work together to overcome or manage them.

The ivory tower metaphor of the university persists, but it is fading fast. In the decade ahead we expect the socially engaged university to become the dominant model. The concerted efforts of national, regional and international networks hold great promise to make university social responsibility a central dimension of higher education around the world.

Dr Joanne Curry is Vice-President: External Relations at Simon Fraser University in Canada; Professor Loretta Feris is Vice-Principal: Academic at the University of Pretoria in South Africa; Professor Robert Hollister is Professor Emeritus at Tufts University in the United States and senior advisor to the University Social Responsibility Network; Dr Julian Skyrme is Director of Social Responsibility at the University of Manchester in the United Kingdom; and Professor Ben Young is Vice-President (Student and Global Affairs) and Chair Professor of Steel Structures at Hong Kong Polytechnic University.

This article first appeared in University World News on 5 January 2023.

- Author Dr Joanne Curry, Professor Loretta Feris, Professor Robert Hollister, Dr Julian Skyrme, Professor Ben Young

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