For universities all global challenges are local

Higher education, particularly public higher education, like all other human institutions is a space of contestation. Almost without exception the leaders and contributors to educational life, to the business world, to politics, to science and the arts are products of our higher education institutions.

The global middle classes see universities as the required preparatory step for their children to enter a world of work. Society recognises universities as the main managers of the official knowledge production process. The market calls on universities to prepare flexible professionals for the global economic process.

However, deep societal and global challenges also reach out to higher education institutions for a response. Indigenous peoples and others call for decolonising and-or indigenising higher education. Climate change demands that higher education become more effective in the teaching and learning of what is needed for the survival of the planet. In a world of violence there are calls for universities to play a more intentional role in the reduction of violence against women, religious intolerance, nuclear proliferation and inequality.

The public university struggles to respond to demands that it serve both the private and the public good. Universities are simultaneously called on to become more active players in their communities and regions, while at the same time they are responding to being pulled in global directions by the phenomena of global competition, as most commonly experienced by the higher education ranking systems.

But the global and the local are not oppositional aspirations. It is false to suggest that if a university robustly contributes to addressing needs locally that it will stagnate or fall in the global ranking game. Similarly, if a highly ranked university begins to engage locally in some powerful new ways, that does not mean that it will fall in rankings.

The phrase, ‘locally relevant and internationally significant’, captures a spirit where excellence and engagement are synergistic partners with international quality and visibility.

Change is happening

There is an expression, ‘all politics is local’. The same is true with the grand challenges as expressed in the 2030 United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, ‘all global challenges are local’.

Unlike in schools, where the content of the curriculum is mostly controlled by the state, at university the curriculum can be controlled by the professions or organised through disciplines. At the heart of university curricula are the individual course instructors and professors.

While inter-disciplinary or problem-focused academic programmes have increased in number over the years, the disciplines remain firmly in control of the canon in the vast majority of universities. And the central higher education canon is increasingly dominated by English language and Western knowledge based content. But when we take even a brief look around the world, we can see that in spite of the fragmented process of curriculum change in higher education, change is happening.

While it is true that universities around the world are for the most part teaching from the dominant Western canon – what some would call a colonial knowledge framework – there are changes within the disciplines and there are even new ones arising. These new disciplines have sprung up as part of a complex interactive global discourse among academics, public intellectuals, social movement activists, political voices and others.

Influences on curriculum change

What are some of the factors that influence changes in higher education curricula? Leadership in our universities does make a difference. The strategic plans, the academic mission and broad statements of purpose of our universities make a difference. This is particularly true if the central planning process has some funds for innovation along the lines of the strategic mission of the institution.

Over the past few years we have seen many universities take up the issue of global citizenship, for example, with an aspiration to support students to become more effective as truly global citizens.

The big challenges of our times also have an impact. Climate change when taken up by university leaders has had an impact in some universities, encouraging academics who have similar interests and concerns.

National interests can have an impact. The recent increased attention to the global refugee crisis has led to the creation of new courses and other curricular innovations in many parts of the world.

Community-engaged learning as curriculum innovation

Central university support of engaged learning, community-based experiential learning, and similar concepts has certainly encouraged curricular innovation. A belief that all students should have an experience in community and-or workplace learning, regardless of the programme of study must, in those institutions that are known for this approach, have had a deep impact.

Engaged learning, responding to the grand challenges of our times, taking action on deep issues such as reconciliation between indigenous peoples and others, and positive efforts towards decolonising curricula have an impact because they are not discipline specific.

The specific way that individual academics, departments and faculties respond to these higher-level challenges is left where it belongs in the departments and faculties, but innovation does take place.

In addition, community-based research, participatory research and engaged scholarship have emerged over the past 20 years as part of the increased attention to community university engagement in general. The UNESCO Chair in Community-Based Research and Social Responsibility in Higher Education in particular has carried out a number of global studies on the development of these approaches.

Community-based research emphasises the co-construction of knowledge between academics and those outside of the academy, research partnerships where community members as well as academics are mutually acknowledged as knowledge makers.

These forms of engaged scholarship are also having an impact on the curriculum in a variety of disciplines as the lines between instructors, learners and community leaders are blurred in a variety of approaches to community engaged learning.

The story of how the Universiti Sains Malaysia, or USM, has undergone a series of substantial curricular changes through learning by doing is worth telling in this respect. USM has embarked on a long-term strategy to make sustainability a major mainstream guiding principle.

USM believes that its large pools of disciplinary experts, high-quality research facilities, excellent infrastructure and a cohort of students with varied academic interests will help to promote sustainability in the communities it serves. The USM has also tacitly accepted a responsibility to be the ‘social conscience of society’, in addition to playing the traditional role of disseminating knowledge.

Drawing on the metaphor of a ‘university in a garden’, the USM leadership encouraged members of the university community to imagine being in a garden and learning from the environment. Becoming aware of ancient, ecological and spiritual knowledge can be learned from a new relationship with the rest of nature. The means moving beyond the Western concept of nature as other or as non-human towards a perception of all knowledge, all life forms and all ways of knowing as part of the river of life, including spiritual life.

A point made by the USM leadership is that attention to the local, the community, the ecological, the indigenous and the Malaysian is also a way to achieve high-level global recognition. The Western model of higher education is not the only yardstick for measuring excellence.

Proposals for action

A review of innovations in local-global curriculum changes in various parts of the world suggests that the following actions would be helpful in accelerating institutional change:
  • • Support the expansion of community engaged learning so that all students have an opportunity for well-supported reflective action learning in community and social movement contexts.

  • • Create community university engagement offices or similar organisational structures that bring the engagement mission greater impact and better integration of research and teaching.

  • • Increase interdisciplinary opportunities for teaching and learning linked to critical global issues such as those expressed by the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals.

  • • Support the development of community-based curriculum development jointly between academics and community organisations.

  • • Create problem- or issue-focused teaching and learning centres or institutes that cut across disciplinary boundaries.
Budd L Hall is co-chair, UNESCO Chair of Community-Based Research and Social Responsibility in Higher Education at the University of Victoria in Canada. Walter Lepore is project director, UNESCO Chair in Community-Based Research and Social Responsibility in Higher Education, and PhD candidate at the University of Victoria, and Nandita Bhatt is senior programme officer at the Society for Participatory Research in Asia in New Delhi, India. This is an edited version of their contribution to the Global University Network for Innovation's Sixth Higher Education in the World Report.