Could Asia lead on university social responsibility?

At the recent University Social Responsibility, or USR, Summit in Beijing, an international group of higher education leaders demonstrated the impressive and growing Asian leadership in the expanding global movement beyond the ivory tower.

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.

Organised as part of the prestigious Beijing Forum and co-sponsored by Peking University and the Hong Kong Polytechnic University, the USR Summit was attended by over 200 presidents, senior administrators, professors and students from 52 institutions in 12 countries.

The 36 participating Chinese universities included virtually all of the top-ranked institutions and represented a broad range of types of universities and all parts of the country.

'University social responsibility' refers to a broad range of programmes that aim to educate students to be transformative leaders and to mobilise the person power and expertise of universities to address societal challenges.

As is the case in many dimensions of globalisation in higher education, university social responsibility has often been dominated by perspectives from the Global North. But the centre of gravity is shifting and fresh leadership from several Asian countries is correcting the imbalance.

This is manifested in the expansion of social responsibility programmes, new models and strategies, new inter-university partnerships and Asian initiatives that promote university social responsibility within the region and globally as well.

The USR Summit was organised by a dynamic new alliance, the University Social Responsibility Network. Launched in 2015 by the Hong Kong Polytechnic University, the network has 14 founding members – six universities from Asia, and another eight from the United Kingdom, United States, Israel, Australia, South Africa and Brazil.

A priority for university heads

The current generation of university heads in Asia includes an expanding number for whom social responsibility goals are a top strategic priority. In opening the USR Summit, Peking University President Professor Lin Jianhua noted that an important historic mission of the university has been to nurture students’ social responsibility.

He urged the group to revitalise and strengthen this core purpose. Hong Kong Polytechnic University President Timothy Tong called on universities to be agents of change, and to nurture socially responsible global citizens with the skills required to build a sustainable future and to empower communities.

Dr Huey-Jen Su, the first female president of National Cheng Kung University (Taiwan), expressed a compelling vision that resonated with the group – “to renew and elevate education for the public good” and to “move moral and civic education from the margins to the centre of university functions”.

Impressive new initiatives

What is the university social responsibility movement in Asia accomplishing? Several things – expansion, innovation and also international leadership.

This trend is expanding rapidly, reaching significant scale in terms of the numbers of institutions and of students who are involved. While in many universities in the region the dominant form of university responsibility is student volunteering, there is accelerating growth of service learning programmes, integrating social responsibility education in academic courses.

Second, creative innovations are emerging across the region. Witness the Kyotology Education Program of Kyoto University that instructs students about local communities and involves them in community revitalisation projects.

Hong Kong Polytechnic University has instituted a new graduate requirement that literally all students take at least one service learning course and is supporting curriculum development and a wide network of community partnerships to implement this initiative.

Third, Asian institutions of higher education are exerting forceful leadership internationally. An especially impressive instance is the creation of the University Social Responsibility Network that is supporting joint international efforts including service-learning student exchange programmes, study visits to exemplary university social responsibility programmes and a collective book project.

Another highly promising initiative emanating from the philanthropic sector in Asia is the creation this year of the Yidan Prize, the largest international award in education, which aims “to create a better world through education”. Based in Hong Kong, the Yidan Prize Foundation is a major new source of financial support for education research and innovative educational initiatives to address pressing societal challenges.

Opportunities and challenges

What will the future directions of university social responsibility in Asian countries be? A major opportunity is to expand service learning throughout higher education in mainland China and the rest of the region. An exciting future could be to build upon the vibrant student volunteering movement and to develop service learning courses in the full range of disciplines.

The result would be to prepare future generations of transformative leaders – many more citizen engineers, citizen business people, citizen scientists and citizen artists. And in the process to combat poverty, improve public health and environmental conditions.

Critics will argue that this is an unrealistic vision because it conflicts with other priorities – to expand enrolments and to build research productivity. On the contrary, expansion of service learning can be a route to higher quality teaching and research.

The current growth of university social responsibility in mainland China is guided by the Chinese National Plan for Medium- and Long-term Education Reform and Development (2010-2020) that calls on universities to enhance “students’ sense of social responsibility to serve the country and the people”.

With its highly centralised national funding and policy-setting, China could further reinforce social responsibility in the coming period and be a real global pioneer in this realm of national policy.

The University Social Responsibility Network has a golden opportunity to stimulate a new level of deeper international partnership among universities on this topic. These collaborations have special potential to both learn from and to influence higher education in China and other Asian countries.

There are, of course, major challenges as well. These include the universal barriers to university social responsibility – traditional academic culture, paucity of incentives for faculty participation, global rankings regimes that largely ignore university social responsibility, and competition for resources.

In addition, a significant constraint is governmental limitations on what constitutes acceptable forms of citizen leadership for change. As university partnerships to elevate social responsibility are building momentum, they can address these barriers as well.

Robert M Hollister is founding executive director emeritus of the Talloires Network, a global coalition of engaged universities. He is professor emeritus, Tufts University, and founding dean emeritus, Tisch College of Civic Life, Tufts University, USA.