Following the Aim for the Top University Project and the Program for Promoting Teaching Excellence of Universities, the Ministry of Education (MOE) launched an initiative to enhance the quality of research, teaching and learning in higher education.
The five-year plan’s emphasis on university social responsibility (USR) has drawn the attention of administrators and scholars who worry that the term might become another empty political slogan that sinks universities deeper into an endless competition for funding.
An extension of corporate social responsibility, USR was conceived as a response to the changing landscape of higher education in the era of globalization.
Challenges of the 21st century include environmental and equality issues, such as climate change, energy conservation, access to education, employment and democracy.
To tackle these challenges, universities as social institutions play a critical role in bringing about more systematic change. No longer merely places to fulfill personal aspirations, universities should share the responsibility of addressing societal needs.
In Taiwan, university social responsibility is manifested in a number of ways.
Earlier this month, the MOE announced the universities that have successfully secured funding for their USR projects.
Some are devoted to promoting local tourism and industries, while others aim to build long-term care services for neighborhoods with an aging population, reduce pollution or strengthen food security.
While these projects should be lauded, more is needed for any well-intentioned plan to have a social impact.
Aside from funding, there are two additional aspects worth considering:
First, structured guidelines are indispensable to implement USR.
The MOE encourages universities to set their own goals and strategies based on the developmental plan of local communities and the universities themselves.
However, without sufficient training and support, it is unclear to what extent universities will be able to effectively carry out their USR projects.
Learning from international examples, such as the USR Network established by Hong Kong Polytechnic University in 2014, could provide tentative solutions.
QS Star, a university rating system founded by Quacquarelli Symonds in 2010, provides additional inspiration. More than 100 universities have participated in their rating of USR, 15 of which come from East Asian countries including China, Indonesia and Malaysia.
Second, USR implementation and outcomes should be rigorously evaluated.
USR is more than doing charity or “feeling good.” It is not simply a matter of writing reports to boost institutional rankings or collect funding.
Increasing the social impact of USR requires using evidence and reason to fully understand what local communities need and what universities can suitably offer.
This requires in-depth engagement with diverse university stakeholders — students, staff, employers, non-governmental organizations and the government.
Universities as social institutions should also be reflexive, ensuring that their practices — ways of managing and teaching — are consistent with their values.
It is hoped that USR can become part of the institutional routine. USR is a long-term investment of time, money and good judgement.
What will happen when the initiative comes to an end? How can the efforts be sustained? These questions can guide USR implementation and evaluation.
These two broad points do not seek to deny the value of USR but humbly endeavor to stimulate public discussion and feedback.
As a democratic society that is deeply concerned with social issues, Taiwan can serve as an example in East Asia of how to transform USR into something more substantial.
Cindy Chang is a PhD candidate at the Faculty of Education at the University of Cambridge.
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