By Paul J Smith

22 September 2014 - 16:06

'Thai Mae Fae Luang University has worked in the village of Huay Lad Nai to develop a sustainable tea business to benefit the local community.' Photo by Windlash on Flickr/CC.
'Thai Mae Fae Luang University has developed a sustainable tea business to benefit the local community.' Photo ©

Windlash, licensed under CC BY 2.0 and adapted from the original.

What role can universities play in their local communities? The British Council’s Paul Smith explains some recent developments and looks at examples of universities working with communities in the Asia Pacific region.

While businesses have been discussing corporate social responsibility since the 1960s, universities have been slower to recognise the important role they can play in their communities, reinforcing the popular stereotype of universities as ‘ivory towers’. But this is changing. Many universities around the world have started to examine the social responsibilities they have to their communities.

Universities can work with social enterprises

Universities are now offering students more opportunities to work with social enterprises. These are businesses that aim to change the world for the better by tackling social problems, or improving people’s lives and communities.

So how does promoting social enterprises benefit universities?

Universities UK takes the view that ‘social enterprise provides students and graduates with the opportunity to develop enterprise skills, which are applicable in all types of business, and to actively demonstrate these skills to potential employers; it offers an opportunity for university staff to develop enterprise solutions within their own areas of interest; and it enables universities to interact with and offer solutions to local businesses or in response to local issues and work closely with the community’.

In 2010, the University of Northampton set itself the goal of becoming Britain’s top institution for social enterprise by 2015, and achieved this by 2013. The university joined many US institutions in being recognised by Ashoka U as a ‘Changemaker Campus’ with a vision to promote social entrepreneurial activities among its students. It now runs a scheme called Big Bonanza, which awards grants to students, staff and alumni with new ideas about how to tackle social inequalities. Students at Northampton can also get business experience by working with the social enterprise company Bag in Bag.

How universities can promote equality and diversity

Universities already play an important role in their communities by creating prosperity through research and development, and by promoting culture. But institutions can also play an important role by encouraging better access for students from poor or rural backgrounds. For example, Renmin University in China recently set up a new programme to offer 90 places to students from rural areas, to make recruitment more transparent and to increase equal access.

Across East Asia, the gender gap is an important issue. Only the Philippines scores well on the Global Gender Gap produced by the World Economic Forum, coming fifth on the index of 136 countries. In fact, the Philippines scores top for access to education, showing that the country has successfully promoted gender equality for access to education, and providing other Asian countries with a role model for success.

Equal access is not just limited to gender. Socio-economic factors are important too. The University of the Philippines has recently introduced a new financial assistance scheme called the Socialized Tuition System, to help poorer students. The scheme is easier to apply to than the system it replaces, and offers greater fee reductions and stipends based on family income.

Examples of universities engaging communities in Asia Pacific

In the Asia-Pacific region, organisations like the Asia-Pacific University Community Engagement Network (APUCEN) and AsiaEngage are trying to build universities’ capacity to engage with local communities, and develop relationships that help communities over the long term. APUCEN’s network of over 60 universities is currently developing a training module which aims to build capacity within universities to engage in community projects. It will also help universities share ideas about what works well, encouraging them to create and spread future wealth among the communities surrounding them.

Examples of projects APUCEN universities are involved in include Universiti Teknologi Malaysia (UTM), which is working with residents of Air Papan, Mersing, to reduce poverty by increasing employment and study opportunities, and the Thai Mae Fae Luang University, which has worked in the village of Huay Lad Nai to develop a sustainable tea business to benefit the local community.

Universities promoting common interests, values and aspirations across communities may play a crucial part in helping to ensure ASEAN integration is successful from the start of the process of economic integration in 2015.

A related event, Universities as agents of social change, takes place on 25 and 26 September 2014. Follow the discussion on Twitter: @phbritish with  #talkhe #ged or #socialchange

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