Status quo hinders socially responsible higher education

Is higher education contributing to our global crises or does it offer stories of hope? The COVID-19 pandemic, the climate crisis, the persistence of gender-based violence, the rise of authoritarian nationalism, calls for decolonisation, and the challenge of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals have taken on new urgency and given rise to larger questions about the social relevance of higher education.

To address the roles of higher education in our complex and troubled times, we have brought together a broadly representative and globally dispersed set of writers, many of whom have seldom been heard in international higher education literature. Taking gender balance and diversity into account, our book, Socially Responsible Higher Education: International perspectives on knowledge democracy, challenges and hopes to deepen the meanings of social responsibility in higher education.

The book’s contributors take on issues of the civic space for learning, decolonisation of curricula, teaching and engaged action and renegotiating knowledge and society. Included in chapters by various authors, who collectively reflect how the concepts of knowledge democracy and epistemic justice frame an approach to socially responsible higher education, are discussions of global ranking systems and scholarly communications.

Ranking and publication reinforce status quo

Florence Piron, Tom Olyhoek, Ivonne Lujano Vilchis, Ina Smith, Zakari Lire and the anonymous Twitter account ‘University Wankings’ call out the ways that global ranking systems and publication impact metrics reinforce the dominance of European and English-language higher education systems and individual scholars.

They outline how a knowledge democracy framework calls for universities to focus on the common good or the collective well-being, whereas a knowledge economy framework emphasises economic goals, scholarly competition and a narrow understanding of quality.

In their chapter, the provocative ‘University Wankings’ anonymous Twitter account raises the question of the ‘whiteness’ of rankings. Taking the Times Higher Education World University Rankings into account, they point out that, of the top 300 universities in the world, 270 are located in Europe, North America, Australia and New Zealand.

A few come from wealthier East Asian countries, with only five coming from the rest of the world. There are three in Africa, all from South Africa.

An irony exists in that most of the critical examination of the impact of higher education on structures of inequality come from university intellectuals. And yet there has been a reluctance of higher education to turn its critical gaze on itself and take a deeper look at what social responsibility really means in a global context.

The book contains many examples and suggestions for deepening our practices of social responsibility in higher education. One of the practical ideas is the establishment of polycentric systems of scholarly communications.

If Europe and the United States are content with the existing system of impact metrics, suggest Piron et al, let them be, but this should not prevent French, Spanish, Chinese, Hindi and other language groups from creating quality assessment systems for their journals that are more appropriate to their needs and research concerns.

They further suggest that Asian, African and Latin American quality assessment systems be supported through open access online publishing which is not owned or controlled by for-profit publishers.

Barriers to development

The argument advanced by these authors, the editors and other authors in the book is that existing ranking and publication impact metrics hinder the development of universities and scholars’ ability to focus on locally contextualised social responsibility, and lead to the exclusion of the vast majority of Global South and non-Anglophone European intellectual communities.

With the third UNESCO World Conference on Higher Education being planned for May 2022, higher education institutions, ministries of higher education, policy-makers, students and academics are taking a deeper look at the current and potential roles of higher education in preparing a next generation of leaders who will inherit this world.

This book offers concrete examples from a wide range of countries and many younger new authors on structures for community engagement, the role of the arts, the gifts of people with disabilities, moving from an English-medium university to an Arabic one, Ubuntu in higher education, and more.

Budd L Hall and Rajesh Tandon are co-chairs, UNESCO Chair in Community-Based Research and Social Responsibility in Higher Education. The book Socially Responsible Higher Education: International perspectives on knowledge democracy is published by Brill-Sense: Leiden-Boston 2021. It is downloadable free and open access from Brill.