Social sciences and humanities vital for change-makers

In 2016, Surin Pitsuwan, former secretary general of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), argued that “Asian leadership needs to be transformative, transgenerational and transnational”.

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.

Within this context, and with a renewed focus on sustainable development from the international community, universities need to produce transformative leaders that are not bound by traditional institutional concerns but engage in enhanced collaboration to address global and regional challenges.

There is a need for universities to redouble their efforts to develop real transformative leaders who contribute to regional and global transformation, addressing shared issues through enhanced collaboration across institutional and national boundaries.

Universities and transformative leadership

Universities provide the institutional space that allows experiments with limited consequences and that forms future adult citizens and leaders. It is usually within the critical period at university that students evolve to become transformative leaders.

Exposure to national, regional and global challenges, opportunities to engage and make contributions to society and to enhance connections to society within their local community, the nation, region and across the world contribute to the development of transformative leaders who can address the challenges of contemporary society.

However, universities tend to focus more on burnishing their international and national reputation, on increasing their financial sustainability and on enhancing the quality of their academic offerings and research publication.

In spite of a bigger focus on regional and global challenges, leadership development and formation tend to be focused on institutional and national levels, limiting the scope and impact of future transformative leaders to address key areas related to sustainable development.

Although the university sector in different countries has produced transformative leaders in the past, there is an urgent need for the sector to contribute to developing transformative leaders that address regional and global challenges.

Universities have increased awareness and exposure to regional and global sustainable development issues, but this is not enough to develop transformative leaders. The world needs transformative leaders who not only understand issues but take collaborative action to address sustainable development goals and ensure sustainable peace, equality and prosperity in our shared global community.

The need for ASEAN transformative leadership

The call for Asian leadership to be transformative, transgenerational and transnational and the corresponding demand for an effective and viable ASEAN leadership model for the 21st century reflect the current lack of an ASEAN transformative leadership that is accommodating and participative rather than authoritative and directive.

Promoting consultation, consensus-building and conflict management, motivating stakeholders, following rules-based procedures and ensuring timely implementation of commitments are now presented as key competencies required for transformative leadership.

In the ASEAN university sector, there is increasing awareness and movement towards greater regional (and to a limited extent) global collaboration. Various national education blueprints and university vision and mission statements are aligned to developing global citizens.

However, there is a lack of focus on ensuring that graduates gain the necessary competencies required to actually contribute to the transformation of the ASEAN region.

In spite of a growing number of activities that build greater awareness of ASEAN integration and various regional and global challenges, universities lack focus on developing the above-mentioned required competencies required for transformative leadership.

Furthermore, there is still a strong tendency to focus on economic issues rather than the socio-cultural and political dimensions of collaboration in spite of the fact that all sectors are intertwined and sustainable development cannot be achieved by addressing only economic challenges.

The ongoing debate regarding the social sciences and humanities in the university sector highlights the utilitarian focus prevalent in the university sector. This puts an emphasis on STEM subjects – science, technology, engineering and mathematics – despite the reality that social sciences and humanities ground students (future citizens and leaders) in various societal issues and enhance awareness, understanding and empathy of societal ills at all levels.

In fact, the contribution of social sciences and the humanities to developing transformative leadership in the 21st century should be highlighted and intensified within universities.

In the Philippines, transformative leaders such as the late former education secretary and permanent representative of the Philippines to UNESCO Lourdes R Quisumbing and the late Senator Edgardo J Angara had a strong understanding of society and its needs.

Both were strong supporters of the liberal arts tradition, with Quisumbing promoting educational values and quality and the alignment of education to national goals, and Angara defending the University of the Philippines’ tradition of dissent and fiscal autonomy and considered the father of the Commission on Higher Education.

I am sure there are examples of transformative leadership across the ASEAN region and the rest of the world, but what I want to emphasise is the need to support and enhance the role of the liberal arts tradition within university education in developing transformative leaders and supporting the sustainable development of our global community.

A sustainable future

Given the increasing complexity of the contemporary world order and the increasing regionalisation of the world, ensuring students are exposed to regional and global challenges, especially the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, and developing the competencies required to empower and develop transformative leaders within the ASEAN region and the rest of the world are crucial for sustainable development.

The university sector needs to increase, not reduce, its focus on social sciences and the humanities so that they can complement STEM-related programmes and contribute directly and indirectly to ensuring the sustainable development of the global community, with a focus on peace-building, enhancing equity and sharing prosperity.

Furthermore, incorporating initiatives and programmes that enhance the development of a broad range of key competencies not only empowers students and our future citizens and leaders, but contributes to the development of the transformative leaders we need for the future.

Dr Roger Y Chao Jr is an independent education development consultant. He was formerly the senior consultant and higher education specialist for the UNESCO International Centre for Higher Education Innovation and UNESCO Myanmar respectively. His research interests and publications cover regionalisation and internationalisation of higher education, comparative and international education, higher education policies and reforms, teacher education and recently refugee education.