Hong Kong universities should connect more with the community

Greater links between universities, the government, entrepreneurs and charities will help tackle social inequalities in Hong Kong, writes Jeff Streeter 

September 20, 2019
Hong Kong protests
Source: iStock

Hong Kong has its fair share of complex social issues, with rising income inequality, a growing ageing population and a serious lack of affordable housing among the most critical. 

These challenges are clearly some of the many drivers behind the current unrest in Hong Kong, but they are not new or unique to the territory, nor are they easy or quick to resolve. 

Could social innovation offer an opportunity here, where other interventions have had limited success over the years? And what part can higher education institutions play in finding innovative solutions to social problems in Hong Kong through their approach to research and teaching?

In simple terms, a social innovation is a new approach to tackling social need. Success stories from around the world tell us that the key to unlocking social innovation’s potential is collaboration. Solving such complex and interconnected problems as social innovation seeks to address never involves just one single organisation or sector; it always involves a close interaction between multiple players and requires people to see and think in new ways. 

Unlike the more traditional top-down and many technology-driven innovations, social innovations are more likely to be bottom-up and powered by the community, working in collaboration with people and institutions from a number of different sectors, including higher education, business, government and non-governmental organisations. The best and most impactful social innovations usually, through successful collaboration, bring about some sort of systemic change. 

Universities are crucial to the success of social innovation in Hong Kong, and, indeed, further afield. They are trusted places of neutrality and independence; they bring robustness and transparency and have the ability to galvanise multiple networks to work together. And while there is no shortage of social innovation programmes in Hong Kong universities, a new report commissioned by the British Council in Hong Kong, and authored by Hong Kong and UK academics, shows that collaboration for social impact between HEIs, and between HEIs and the community, is lacking.

Of the growing research base (42 academic publications) and increasing number of courses (49, with a further seven due to start this month) dealing with social innovation in all eight of Hong Kong’s publicly funded HEIs identified in the study, only 28 per cent of the research projects and just one of the teaching programmes are collaborative. 

The majority of the research activity is theoretical and case-study focused (62 per cent) rather than applied or practical in nature. And in terms of knowledge exchange – the sharing of research outcomes and expertise with industry, government and the public – of a total of 24 knowledge exchange projects, less than half are partnerships with non-governmental organisations. 

Moreover, 79 per cent of all community engagement work takes the form of board/honorary roles or panel/committee membership, rather than active research-led engagement, while just six academics account for nearly half of the lead authorship on all 50 publications looked at in the report. 

The study’s authors, Yanto Chandra and Norah Wang of The Hong Kong Polytechnic University, Richard Hazenberg of the University of Northampton and Alex Nicholls of the University of Oxford, cite many reasons for this dearth of real-life engagement with social innovation, including systemic barriers such as the way that research funding is administered and competition between HEIs in Hong Kong. 

In addition, key social problems facing Hong Kong identified in the research include social inequality, elderly/ageing issues and housing (59 per cent). Health was identified as a key determinant of all these other factors, showing the closely interrelated nature of social problems here and reinforcing the need for a collaborative, multi-agency approach to solve them.

Social innovation is challenging the traditional place of the university in society. In the face of the demand to find responses to complex local and global challenges that we face in Hong Kong, the UK and beyond, HEIs can and should play a pioneering role. 

Academic institutions must develop new collaborations that engage with each other and the community to develop social innovation as not just a field of research, but one of action. Through fresh approaches to higher education teaching and research, and cross-collaborations between academics, social innovators and entrepreneurs, government, social-service providers and NGOs, universities can forge a trailblazing path in the field of social innovation and impact, empowering our future leaders to build a society in which nobody is left behind. 

Jeff Streeter is director of the British Council in Hong Kong. 

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