Some universities are still not engaging with communities

Beyond their traditional mission of providing higher education through teaching and developing knowledge through scholarly research and scientific investigation, universities are increasingly reaching out to assist societies through various community outreach programmes.

But the concept of university social responsibility, or USR, had been lacking in universities in the Great Lakes region of East Africa, or GLREA, according to Wenceslas Nzabalirwa, a professor of education at the University of Rwanda’s College of Education and his associates. GLREA is composed of three countries: Burundi, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Rwanda.

In a study published in the Springer journal, Social Indicators Research, ‘A systematic review of university social responsibility in post-conflict societies: The case of the Great Lakes region of East Africa’, Nzabalirwa and three associate education researchers based at two Chinese universities, East China Normal University and Jiangsu University, argued that USR remains an unexplored academic topic in the three former Belgian colonies in East Africa.

Review of research output

That conclusion was arrived at after reviewing social responsibility research output in 30 universities in the region between 2000 and 2020 and, of the 93 records that were found, only 10 were included in the study, indicating the low quality of eligible records on USR in the region.

In addition to a search of academic publications on USR in the region, the researchers reviewed academic databases alongside institutional documents and selected universities’ websites.

But, despite the growing number of international studies in this field, the scarcity of publications and the lack of interest among regional researchers on USR is worrying.

Researchers attributed the low interest of universities in the GLREA region in USR to historical attitudes, whereby only a few indigenous elites had to be educated to serve the Belgian colonial administration in the African territories.

They also noted that, apart from the GLREA having existed under Belgian rule for more than 70 years, from 1950 to the 1990s, local wars with hotspots developing one after another undermined the regional political economies and stunted academic research at the universities.

In their analysis of vision and mission statements in GLREA universities, researchers found that only 20% of the selected Burundian universities did mention their social responsibility commitments on their websites.

For instance, the University of Burundi and the National Institute of Public Health, which top the ranking index in the country did not highlight or specify in their vision and mission statements any of their social responsibility commitments, according to the study.

Similarly, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, researchers noted that few universities ran specific community service projects, or mentioned social responsibility commitments in their vision and mission statements.

According to the study, of the 10 selected universities in that country, only three have specifically defined their social responsibility commitments through their vision and mission statements and posted the same on their websites.

Comparably, there were slightly more universities in Rwanda that mentioned their social responsibility commitments in their vision and mission statements than their counterparts in the other two countries. “Even then, only four defined specific components of their social responsibility commitments, using terms that are synonymous with the USR,” stated the study.

In this regard, of the 30 selected universities, only 37% of them by the time of the study had posted, mentioned or specifically had defined their social commitments through their vision and mission statements and posted such information on their websites.

Emerging engagements

But, despite the scarcity of publications on USR and the lack of mechanisms or inventive frameworks for promoting social responsibility in universities within the GLREA, Nzabalirwa and his associates were of the opinion that all is not lost as there were indicators that engagement between the communities and universities was emerging on various critical issues.

Researchers noted that universities in the region have started community engagement on conflict resolution processes in societies which had been torn apart by long-running hostilities.

In this regard, some of the selected universities have nascent programmes in poverty alleviation and disaster relief, outreach community services, human capital development , health care treatment and projects on environment impact in terms of afforestation and water conservation.

According to Jean Baptiste Habarurema, one of the co-authors of the study and currently based at East China Normal University in Shanghai, two years ago, the three countries launched the Home Grown Solutions forum for the universities in the region to execute new plans towards sustainable development.

Home Grown Solutions is part of the Sustainable Development Solutions Network, a United Nations global initiative which seeks to promote the implementation of Sustainable Development Goals, or SDGs, through universities’ curricula and operations.

National frameworks

Amid efforts to encourage universities in GLREA to increase their fledgling footprint on USR research and the overall social responsibility commitments, the researchers suggested the need for establishment in each of the three countries a national framework for university social engagement that would fast-track university partnerships with the local communities.

“On institutional level, universities should establish an incentive framework to reward their academic units’ best practices and establish mechanisms for faculty promotion and evaluative approaches for promoting USR awareness,” stated the study.

In that regard, the researchers pointed out the need to establish community research partnerships and projects that would address the real problems from grassroots level of the community in order to influence local and national policy change.

But, for that to happen, the researchers highlighted the need for universities to develop and expand new funding sources for engaging the communities and encouraging private funders to understand that civic engagement programmes are promising investment opportunities which can potentially accelerate quality of life for so many economically disadvantaged people.

Further, universities were urged to create a supportive environment that promotes socially responsible ethics among key stakeholders, as well as develop a strong university image in order to win global market place and remain more competitive in the corporate environment.

Researchers also said that if GLREA universities were to integrate USR research and social responsibility commitments much faster, they would have to abandon a lingering historical colonial higher education orientation with a mission that was aimed at empowering the indigenous masses.