Treat communities as partners to improve social impact

Students and their universities around the world are jumping at the chance to become agents of transformative change by working with their communities as partners to make a real impact on the lives of people and provide hope for the future despite the death and disruption caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

That was one of the positive messages coming from a webinar hosted by University World News in partnership with the Mastercard Foundation on how universities can improve their social impact.

From working with restaurants and marriage halls in the Pakistan capital Lahore to help feed poorer families by setting up a social enterprise to collect unwanted food, to community volunteering to supporting migrant domestic workers in Lebanon and providing hygiene education and basic healthcare services in Cameroon, students and their academics are not waiting for social impact to be judged alongside teaching and research in the rankings.

Instead, they are actively seeking out opportunities to make a difference through social intervention that benefits people’s lives, said Maha Haidar Makki, director of the Mastercard Foundation Scholars Program at the American University of Beirut, which encourages its students to tackle local challenges, ranging from COVID-19 awareness among refugees in Lebanon to campaigns against female genital mutilation in Africa.

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.

Among the initiatives highlighted by Makki was the collaboration between the university’s school of engineering and school of public health to help 10,000 refugees with its Syria relief project, not just through volunteering programmes, but also by its pro-active and strategic approach to developing the human resources of refugees to help the reconstruction and recovery of their own country.

Go beyond research and teaching

Maryam Mohiuddin, founder and director of the Social Innovation Lab, Lahore, Pakistan, told the webinar that while many social interventions were initiated organically by students and staff, policy-makers can play a significant role, as demonstrated by the call of Pakistan’s Higher Education Commission for universities to go beyond research and teaching and help create stronger leaders and stronger communities which will lead to stronger economies.

Working with the Lahore University of Management Sciences, Mohiuddin told the webinar: “We’ve created a model for a social enterprise incubator that allows students and faculty to partner on some of the most pressing challenges they see around them in their local communities and create business solutions to those challenges.”

And while it was great that people in higher education were talking about “leaving the ivory tower and going out to the community”, that was a “very one-sided” view of making social impact, she warned.

Make it a two-way exchange

“There’s always a barrier to the community coming inside. So, one of the things we did with the [Lahore] University of Management Sciences was open the gate to make this a two-way exchange,” said Mohiuddin.

Among those accepting the invitation was a rickshaw driver, normally pitched at the university entrance, who ferried students from one end of the city to the other and barely earned the minimum wage.

“That guy can now come inside the university and become part of our social enterprise incubator and learn the ABCs of how to make a business.”

Other universities are following suit, with the University of Cape Town in South Africa inviting “drop-outs to come on campus to the graduate school of business alongside those doing fancy MBAs and learn how to make businesses,” said Mohiuddin.

Hilligje van’t Land, secretary general of the International Association of Universities, based at UNESCO House in Paris, told the webinar that universities were at a turning point and more and more were making social impact part of their mission.

It can be simple things that make a real impact, such as a university in Thailand which used its expertise and knowledge during the pandemic to help educate people in better sanitation and manufactured and distributed sanitising gel for people using the mass transportation system, she said.

One of the ways to keep social impact high up the agenda was linking a university’s mission to the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), said Van’t Land, who highlighted the University of Bergen in Norway for its use of creative projects around different SDGs.

“They are engaging everyone, from students and staff to technical support and the canteen staff and the city,” she said, and they are working in partnership with the University of the West Indies on water issues.

Tackling social inequity and inequality

Another major challenge in terms of social impact was tackling social inequity and inequality, with Van’t Land urging universities to “encourage new voices to come into the system”, saying it was time to “move away from competition” and the higher education focus on “only the brightest and the best”. Universities needed to open up and become more inclusive and encourage wider participation so that “we have the capacity to rethink things”.

One of the drags on that happening was the huge influence of the university rankings, with Lorlene Hoyt, executive director of the Talloires Network of Engaged Universities, based in the United States, telling the webinar that Talloires members were “more interested in advancing a classification system that acknowledges community engagement and institutional reform” than rankings that foster competition.

Van’t Land agreed and said: “What is needed today is greater cooperation and working together to address the challenges we face.”

She felt the rankers were gradually coming around to this way of thinking as their popularity wanes. “We fought the rankings for quite a while. Now we work with them to improve things.”

During the webinar, chaired by University World News Editor Brendan O’Malley, a number of polls were held among over 500 active participants, including one showing that 75% of respondents said their university already included social impact as part of its mission.

Maha Haidar Makki commented: “Even if social impact is missing from official documents, such as the mission [statement], I think it is slowly gaining prominence in strategies and plans and becoming integral to [the] ethos and the DNA of higher education institutions.

“So, until the mission and the vision and the rankings criteria and the promotional criteria are revised, I think collaborations such as the Talloires Network and the Mastercard Foundation Scholars Program will continue to play a huge role in the rise of social impact in higher education institutions.”

Treating communities as partners

Among the key recommendations from all the speakers was to treat communities engaged in tackling social issues as partners.

Maryam Mohiuddin said: “We must step into the shoes of the community” and co-create interventions, whether that be vegetable farmers explaining to university students that even the best seeds and fertiliser were no answer if the sun doesn’t shine or there were floods; and understanding that making a small token charge for food parcels to those who could pay could give them a sense of dignity.

“We mustn’t say: ‘Here I am, the expert, I know this better than you, and this is going to work’ … We need to get off our high horse and treat each other as equals and partners.”

O’Malley closed the webinar by saying: “There is common agreement on the importance of getting universities to think strategically about this issue and make it part of their mission.

“But there are many ways to improve social impact – from using the Sustainable Development Goals as a framework, to providing recognition and reward to students and staff, to providing university incubator support to make social enterprises sustainable and scalable.

“But key to it all is understanding the importance of working with the communities, listening to them, learning from them, understanding their needs and working together to find solutions.”

If you would like to watch a recording of the webinar, you can find it on our YouTube channel, here.

For more articles about how universities can improve their social impact and civic engagement, please see our Transformative Leadership hub.

Nic Mitchell is a freelance journalist and PR consultant specialising in European higher education. He runs De la Cour Communications and blogs at