Global summit on social responsibility and HE

An international summit on the social responsibility imperatives of higher education institutions could support university leaders and administrators who want to start, sustain or strengthen their current efforts — despite wrestling with the COVID-19 disruption. The latest theoretical, research and practical developments in the field will also be presented at the virtual event.

The online summit, “University Social Responsibility: Priorities for the next decade”, will be hosted from 3-5 February by the University of Pretoria (UP) and the University Social Responsibility Network (USRN).

The USRN, which was established in 2015, comprises 16 members. including Peking University, China; Simon Fraser University, Canada; Hong Kong Polytechnic University; University of Manchester, United Kingdom; and UP, which is the only African university that is currently part of the network.

According to Professor Norman Duncan, vice principal: academic at UP, the network views university social responsibility as “extending the traditional mission of universities in an endeavour to develop solutions for economic, social, and environmental problems in society”.

The summit is held biennially to provide a forum for academics, researchers and practitioners to assess the progress made by partner universities in respect of their social responsibility endeavours.

“It provides an important opportunity for partners to sharpen their understanding of university social responsibility at the levels of theory, research and practice and to develop collaborative university social responsibility projects with varied scopes and scales within the network,” said Duncan.

In the past, the international USR Summit has attracted more than 200 university presidents, senior administrators, professors and students from 52 institutions in 12 countries.

A broad definition of university social responsibility entails the programmatic, values-driven practices and processes embarked on by universities to make a difference to the social and economic well-being of the communities in which they are located and serve; as well as broader society through their teaching, research and community engagement and service activities.

UP’s own community engagement programme entails more than 1,000 community projects involving more than 26,000 students annually. It is considered to be core to teaching, learning and research at the institution.

Curricular community engagement may be mandated by professional or accrediting bodies (such as the South African Council for Social Services Professions, the Engineering Council of South Africa and the Health Professions Council of South Africa), or it could be simply an integral part of community-based learning and practical work modules.

In a significant number of cases, involvement in community engagement and development is voluntary.

According to Duncan, universities have an obligation to the social institutions and communities that support them and are the raison d’être of their existence.

Community engagement and development programmes give students access to the skills, attributes and substantive freedoms (with reference to Nobel laureate Amartya Sen).

This enables them to not only fulfil their career aspirations and lead more actualised lives but also to contribute to the life chances of others in our world who do not yet have the opportunities that they have, said Duncan.

Duncan quoted Craig Mahoney, the vice-chancellor of the University of the West of Scotland, as saying, “universities cannot be sustainable without being socially responsible”.

To register for the summit, please go to: