Universities urged to be drivers of societal solidarity

Universities have been urged to move from intense and often toxic competition for reputation and ranking to cooperation for societal solidarity and global connectedness.

The call was made by Professor Angelina Yuen-Tsang, the former vice-president responsible for student and global affairs at the Hong Kong Polytechnic University, when she presented a keynote address on the second day of the University Social Responsibility Summit 2021, from 3 to 5 February, organised virtually by the University of Pretoria, South Africa.

According to Yuen-Tsang, academic excellence for centuries had been the core mission of higher education. However, in recent years, there had been calls for radical change to also meet societal expectations.

“People are now demanding much more from the universities than just the supply of knowledge,” said Yuen-Tsang, who, as part of the global University Social Responsibility Network, has been encouraging universities to enter into partnerships and offer services to communities.

Research for sustainable development

Outlining the new agenda for universities, Yuen-Tsang said in her address titled, “The transformative power of higher education in fostering hope and global connectedness in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic”, that universities were now facing disruptive threats from, not just pandemics, but the emergence of a digital education system.

“It would be good for university leaders to realise that they are not the only ones who are offering higher education … [the] choices for receiving education have become more diverse,” she said.

For most universities, especially those in Africa, the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals could be the perfect entry point for universities to establish community service engagements that could contribute to the achievement of these goals.

She advised universities to shift from being teaching-centred to enquiry-based and blended learning institutions.

Highlighting the importance of education technology platforms in opening access to higher education, Yuen-Tsang urged universities to make use of them to reach more students and to offer services to the local communities.

On research, Yuen-Tsang, who is now an honorary professor at the department of applied social sciences at the Hong Kong Polytechnic University, advised universities to encourage their staff to focus on research that would contribute to sustainable development of communities instead of exclusively concentrating on research for discovery and high-impact citation.

Recognising that there had been massive commercialisation of university research, Yuen-Tsang rooted for research-sharing, not just among academics, but also with local communities.

She explained the idea was not meant to deny universities the benefits from their research but to enable them also to actively contribute to the sustainable development of society.

Yuen-Tsang argued that, to accomplish goals of social responsibility, universities should shift from being elitist institutions for the privileged groups in the society, to becoming institutions that provide inclusive education for all.

She stated that most universities are still proud of the traditional way in which they prepare professional cadres, instead of aiming for transformative leadership among their graduates.

Foster hope and resilience

Tracing the new agenda for higher education, Yuen-Tsang said universities that would prosper in the future would be those that would build hope and resilience among their graduates, who would be agents of social inclusion.

“Such graduates will be critical thinkers, problem-solvers, socially responsible citizens and, above all, resilient lifelong learners,” said Yuen-Tsang.

But, to produce socially responsible graduates, Yuen-Tsang explained, would not require an expensive international education that benefited the rich only.

Instead, experiential learning could be developed at local level. In this regard, she cited several high-quality community engagement educational programmes that universities implement at local level.

“All universities should learn to bring internationalisation home, as the idea of successful teaching and research is not to let a challenge, or crisis, go to waste,” said Yuen-Tsang.

In other words, institutions could enrich their community engagement and community service, not only through sending their students off to attain experience, but also they could create opportunities to learn – and earn credits – at home.

Using the COVID-19 pandemic as an example, Yuen-Tsang said that, whereas the calamity had caused the disruption of the education of more than 1.6 million students, the crisis had also propelled humanity to rethink the future vision and mission of education.

In this context, universities were seen as social institutions that should lead in building strategic actions for the progress and consolidation of society.

“It is against this background that the global higher education community has the responsibility to foster hope and resilience in a shattered and divided world after the pandemic,” she said.