Social responsibility should be in missions of universities

Health services, education, conserving and restoring the environment, rehabilitating substance users and economically supporting the disadvantaged may be projects that are removed from their principal functions of teaching and research, but higher education institutions are increasingly posting an impressive list of university social responsibility initiatives.

In some instances, the scale of these activities aimed at bettering the lives of surrounding communities, and society at large, are comparable to those undertaken by well-resourced, profit-making, commercial organisations.

But, unlike corporates, universities often do not have vast resources to make a positive impact on society.

However, this does not stop socially responsible universities. They mobilise the resources and expertise they need to help communities to solve urgent and pressing problems facing them.

This emerged at the virtual international summit titled “University social responsibility: priorities for the next decade” hosted from 3-5 February by the University of Pretoria (UP), South Africa, and the global University Social Responsibility Network (USRN).

Acting as agents of change

Although large-scale community engagement may take years to develop, socially responsible universities could be recognised through their actions, culture and through the academic programmes they offered, said Gernia van Niekerk, manager for community engagement at UP.

Universities should encourage their students to be “socially responsive” to whatever was happening in society, she said.

This could be attained, not only through carrying out physical community development programmes, but also through academic programmes via curricular activities that promoted awareness and responsiveness to happenings in their surroundings.

The university practises what it preaches through its own multi-faculty community projects such as Moja Gabedi, a community centre, which includes Reliable House, a transitional centre for substance abusers and the homeless seeking to be reintegrated into society.

Such projects bring universities closer to the people while the institutions, themselves, become real agents of change.

“However, you must always be aware that, when you act as an agent of change, not everybody is happy; however, take time to listen and engage with the people,” Van Niekerk advised.

Paying attention to what the surrounding community needs – listening – is what guided another UP student to get involved.

Gerdus van der Laarse, an electronics engineering student at the faculty of engineering and built environment at UP, and his peers, helped to end a long-running conflict between a local primary school and locals about the absence of a perimeter fence, which often exposed the school to encroachment and trespassing.

The student, as a member of the Engineers Without Borders chapter at the university, mobilised mates at the faculty and, in partnership with the community and the school, helped to erect a barbed fence around the institution, thereby ending the conflict.

The task provided them with an opportunity to learn both soft and hard skills, he said, and, more importantly, a chance to gain social skills and being responsible.

Such skills, he added, cannot be taught in a lecture room.

“With university socially responsibility work, students acquire much sought-after skills in life after school, while the community benefits and the university fulfils its role of teaching,” Van der Laarse said.

Quality education for prisoners

Although the University of Pretoria was the only university in Africa that was a member of the global University Social Responsibility Network at the conference, learning through service has been adopted by many other institutions.

In Zimbabwe, lecturers at Lupane State University have decided to offer quality education to prisoners as part of their social responsibility commitment.

Presenting a study of the project at the summit, Christopher Ndlovu, a lecturer at the university, said that, in most African countries, prisoners are denied access to quality education, but the university wanted to change that.

“In the form of service-learning, the university’s faculty of education offers instruction to volunteers through its capacity-building programme for the teaching instructors so that they are able to prepare and deliver quality lessons,” said Ndlovu.

Amid efforts to close the digital divide, Rhodes University in South Africa, through its community engagement programme, has designed a digital storytelling course that is expected to promote social cohesion between the university and residents of the surrounding Makana Municipality.

According to Thandiwe Matyobeni, a lab manager in the Rhodes University social innovation hub, participants from the community will be able to develop storytelling videos.

“The project is expected to challenge an extreme digital divide in the area,” said Matyobeni.

The outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic forced South Africa’s University of the Free State to re-imagine its digital platforms and partnerships by creating a blended e-community engagement environment.

In fact, institutions across the world refocused their community work and how they do it due to COVID-19.

A key pillar in university’s mission

At Simon Fraser University, Canada, the institution has been providing education about COVID-19 to the public, including providing ‘public science’ on the disease. This was achieved via videos and dedicated websites.

In addition, the university has been helping the needy, including the sick and the elderly, during the pandemic.

Dr Joanne Curry, the director of external relations, said: “Our communities make us better universities now more than ever before, with COVID-19.”

Curry said higher learning institutions across the world had a duty to use their ‘social infrastructure’ to help build an “equitable and sustainable world”.

Another way in which her university did this was by putting in a place a ‘social procurement policy’, whereby the institution relied on the local community and disadvantaged groups to procure for goods and services, she disclosed.

“Our university has, over the past years, become the most community engaged university of research in Canada, and we have resolved university social responsibility is not going to be a third mission of our institution but a key pillar of our mission,” said Curry.

Reaching the vulnerable

Service to the vulnerable was also a central concern of Hong Kong Polytechnic University, according to Debby Cheng, an academic at the university.

As part of the university’s social responsibility effort, it has been working with the elderly.

The institution had initiated several programmes to help the elderly lead active and healthy lifestyles.

It was also working with centres of the elderly, building the capacity of social workers, and coming up with innovations to make the lives of senior citizens easier.

“Our biomedical engineering department is coming up with innovative designs for aids that are helping them lead both mentally and physically healthy lives,” she told the meeting.

The university had also developed radio programmes designed to engage the aged, as well as a digital platform for seniors in which they promoted their own events. The activities were guided by the World Health Organisation’s concept on active ageing, she said.

Data gatherers for sustainable development

At the University of Manchester, United Kingdom, students and faculty were engaged in activities geared to supporting attainment of United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Jennifer O’Brien, the university’s director for social responsibility, told the event that the university was involved in co-production of knowledge in collaboration with external actors.

The institution was providing evidence-based knowledge, solutions and innovations to support the implementation of the SDGs.

It had contributed thousands of research publications on SDGs, representing a significant portion of research generated by the UK on the subject.

Using its living lab concept, the university was using an applied research approach to producing knowledge for its open resource for SDGs, with students playing the role of collecting data from the field.

“Students are increasingly becoming aware of the economic life that is prevailing around the world. We should expose them to conducting social research and have them become part of generating knowledge for the good of the world,” she said.

Students were the future workforce and employers wanted to see evidence of their knowledge, she declared.

Challenges for African universities

Although many universities pledge their commitment to social responsibility and have evidence of its benefits, more could be done, in particular in Africa.

Dr Bisini Naidoo, an academic coordinator at the University of South Africa, made a plea at the summit for elevating service-learning within the higher education sector.

This could be done by incorporating service-learning into institutions’ mission statements as a robust educational approach that combines academic goals with community work as a strategy to nurture future leaders committed to combating social injustice, poverty and inequality.

In a study, “Collaboration between higher education and learning cities through service-learning partnerships”, Naidoo said service-learning prepared platforms from which institutions could engage in the promotion of society’s well-being.

She encouraged universities to connect with surrounding areas and to offer services that would better the lives of people living in those communities.

Towards this, Naidoo noted that most cities in Africa would benefit from such cooperation in their efforts to deliver services.

“For instance, universities on the continent should identify disciplines that can respond to specific challenges through service-learning curriculums, in peri-urban areas in the municipalities,” said Naidoo.

Leadership needed

The missing element in social responsibility efforts is often leadership.

Dr Fernando Palacio, in a presentation, “Diversity in universities’ responses to COVID-19: universities’ social responsibility action”, urged African universities to provide leadership in making non-academic contributions to communities.

Palacio, a member of the organising committee of the conference and a senior lecturer at Kyoto University in Japan, said there was a need for universities globally to go beyond the ivory tower and start rethinking on how to make direct and indirect impacts on society.

He cited the example of how the University of São Paulo in Brazil, a member of the USRN, is making an indirect impact on indigenous people in Brazil by advising them on their political and environmental rights.

From providing occupational therapies, assisting the homeless and offering academic scholarships to people with HIV and other underprivileged groups, to creating awareness about gender violence among girls, it appears that universities in Africa and beyond are capable of integrating service-learning into their academic missions.

But, as Naidoo pointed out, challenges still remain.

Funding is an obvious one. But there are others, including limited political will among governments to encourage universities to broaden their capacity in community engagement and university leaders who remain reluctant or unwilling to lead community engagement initiatives.