Research and teaching is what we’re good at, social justice is what we’re good for

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Many others have written more eloquently about these issues than I will here, but there are some ideas I want to explore, particularly as we think about our role at INASP in supporting research and knowledge for development. And it seems a particularly appropriate time for such reflection.

In the UK, a new aid strategy anticipates a greater role for universities in development, in particular through research into critical global challenges, and through a new innovation fund for higher education, focusing on African countries, and on the Middle East as countries in the region respond to the Syrian crisis

Getting beyond the rhetoric

Last month I was at Going Global, the British Council’s annual flagship event for higher education leaders. It brought a lot of senior people together for a packed few days of panels and presentations and some provocative discussions too.

At times debates were reduced to what felt like fairly rhetorical statements — uncomfortable given the location of the conference, but perhaps unsurprising at a time when many previously and staunchly ‘public good’ organisations are being pushed to behave more like corporations.

But there were some really energising moments too, and it was the contrast — between the rhetoric and the moments that sparkled — that made me reflect on the wider role of universities.

When university leaders dropped the corporate language which increasingly seems to infect the sector, and spoke passionately about social justice, I switched on again.

Cape of new hope?

The conference took place in Cape Town, a city and a country with both a history of social violence and exclusion, and persistent— and deepening — poverty and inequality.

Academics from the University of Cape Town, PLAAS (the Institute for Poverty, Land and Agrarian Studies) and the Human Science Research Council talked about their efforts to explicitly bring research expertise to bear on these urgent, entrenched and deep-rooted problems. By bringing together a virtual “think tank” of research, policy and business leaders they were finding new ways to connect the talents within South Africa’s universities to urgent social issues.

Social responsibility in UK higher education

As attention turned to the Syrian crisis, Bill McCarthy declared Bradford’s commitment to be a university of sanctuary, welcoming refugees, while Manchester’s James Thompson explained how the university buys goods and services from, undertakes research in, and designs its educational programmes to respond to the needs of the city’s linguistically and ethnically diverse “curry mile”. As he put it: “research and teaching is what we’re good at, social justice is what we’re good for”.

Values

In a time when university leadership titles are more often borrowed from the business world, it was particularly refreshing to see that UCT has a Pro Vice Chancellor for Poverty and Inclusion and Manchester an Associate Vice President for Social Responsibility. Job titles aren’t everything, but they send a signal about an institution’s values. If universities are serious about addressing the sustainable development goals, perhaps we can hope to see more roles like these.

Jon Harle is the Director of the Strengthening Research and Knowledge Systems (SRKS) programme. Jon also leads INASP’s Research Access and Higher Education team, who work with local partners to ensure that researchers, students and professionals have access to the information they need. He has written and consulted on research capacity and higher-education issues for a number of donors and research agencies.