How higher education can be a force for social change

University World News is today launching a six month-long series on "Transformative Leadership". A new departure for University World News, the series aims to promote debate among its readers about higher education’s contribution to positive change in the world and how higher education can be transformed itself.

This article is part of a series on Transformative Leadership published by University World News in partnership with Mastercard Foundation. University World News is solely responsible for the editorial content.

It is being published in partnership with The MasterCard Foundation, an independent non-profit organisation.

Some of the themes we will be exploring include social inequity, gender empowerment, ethical leadership, innovation and internationalisation.

In two 13-week periods of coverage between now and July, and from September to November, University World News will be publishing reports on developments in transformative leadership and education for transformative leadership around the world and commentaries from distinguished experts.

We start this week with the beginning of a four-week overview of what transformative leadership means for society and for higher education and how it has changed the lives and contributions of individuals – from students to leaders and movements achieving remarkable changes.

In addition to weekly commentaries or features, there will be a special supplement each month, and readers will be able to contribute to the debate.

During the series, University World News readers who wish to look back over the coverage will be able to find all the articles on our Transformative Leadership hub, which can be located via our navigation bar on the homepage. We invite readers to send in their comments on articles or submit articles themselves to share thoughts and experience in this area and provide feedback and suggestions for the series.

In our opening week, we begin with a comment piece by Chris Roche, director of the Institute for Human Security and Social Change at La Trobe University in Melbourne, Australia, and senior research partner of the Developmental Leadership Program, asking “What is transformative leadership?”.

He argues that it should not be about promoting individualistic reform “champions” but should encompass the “coalitions and social movements that challenge structural obstacles to progressive social change”.

Roche – who has more than 25 years’ experience of working for international NGOs as a project manager, evaluator, policy researcher and director – says increasingly academics from a range of disciplines work alongside practitioners and policy-makers, and in partnership with governments, aid agencies and NGOs.

They collect evidence that brings precision to terms such as ‘transformative leadership’, which in turn helps illuminate the processes of social change and encourage practical interventions.

But he also argues that universities must transform themselves and sees the role of higher education as increasingly being recognised as key to the development process at a systemic level because it “creates citizenry capable of holding governments to account”.

Also this week we include an edited version of the speech by Michael D Higgins, President of Ireland, to the European University Association’s annual conference earlier this month. He said the role of the university in enabling citizens to develop the intellectual tools to address the great challenges of our time, which include questions of development and global poverty, of climate change and sustainability, and of conflict and displacement, is vital.

He speaks passionately about the need for universities to be “places where minds are emancipated and citizens enabled to live fully conscious lives in which suggested inevitabilities are constantly questioned”. Specifically, he decries the current tendency of policy-makers to view universities as foundations of new knowledge and innovate thinking but only within the confines of existing trade, commercial and economic paradigms that “are fading but not without damage to social cohesion”.

“It is in our universities,” he says, that we can “enact such transformative thinking as is necessary to create the foundations of a society that is more inclusive, participatory and equal”. Critical and engaged pedagogy is required to encourage a change in consciousness and equip a generation of students “who will have the confidence and the wisdom to engage in alternative visions of what a society can be, and bring it into being”.

President Higgins, a political scientist, who was himself a passionate advocate of the extension of access to tertiary education beyond the walls of established universities, addresses the potential of digitisation for effecting positive change, provided its pathway into our society is guided in a way that is ethical and moral.

Stimulate debate

Through this series University World News is seeking to stimulate debate among, and comments and commentary from, our readers on the issue of transformative leadership and the contribution higher education can make to positive change in the world.

The series is a partnership with The MasterCard Foundation, which is committed to reducing poverty in Africa. Its programmes serve more than 9 million disadvantaged people in 29 African countries, focusing on skills-building, education and access to financial services.

The work includes supporting 30,000 scholarships at secondary level and tertiary level. The programme aims to create a movement of transformative leaders who together will “support and influence social and economic progress around the world, particularly in Africa”.

Reeta Roy, president and CEO of The MasterCard Foundation (pictured in the sidebar opposite), told University World News: “We focus on people who are excluded for a variety of reasons but largely due to poverty. We are working to educate and develop the next generation of ethical leaders.”

The Foundation is attempting to advance educational inclusion and started its scholarship programme by consulting with a lot of other foundations and scholarship programmes and meeting young people, Roy said. It soon realised that the young people it wanted to support needed assistance not just with scholarship fees but for “room and board, transportation, pocket money and the cost of spectacles and other basic things not covered in traditional scholarship programmes”.

Own concept

Roy said The MasterCard Foundation has developed its own concept of transformative leadership.

“For us it is leadership based on a foundation of ethics that has a sense of purpose that is about engaging and improving the lives of others.”

To achieve that, the Foundation’s scholarship programme encourages students to reflect on what it is they wish to change and, through mentoring, helps them think about how to go about it and how to engage others in solving the problem.

“It’s about a shift in mindset and accumulating particular skills – making people more resilient, being curious about why things can’t be changed, having empathy for people who live with a problem, and having the courage and perseverance to keep going and learn from mistakes,” Roy said.

“But it takes more than just an individual to effect change, whether you call it a movement or working with many different actors, that is very key, it is part of the experience of these young people.”

Many of The MasterCard Foundation Scholars created projects even before they became a scholar, which meant mobilising resources in their village and often having to influence elders or family members. For instance, one scholar in northern Mali, an area badly affected by conflict, set up a school for girls from nomadic families.

Elevating the debate

Roy said The MasterCard Foundation was interested in working with University World News, not just because of the quality of its product, but because of its “huge reach to decision-makers” in higher education.

“We would like to find ways to elevate the whole conversation around transformative leadership and how people relate to it in different ways, whether discussing innovation, ethical leadership, questions of equity, or of global education,” she said.

“We are very excited about how University World News will approach this with a global perspective, bringing in a range of organisations.

“It could do a lot to advance the conversation around transformative leadership among actors and decision-makers in education, especially in Africa, and that could be powerful.”

Brendan O’Malley is chairman and managing editor of University World News. He can be contacted on: