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3 strategies universities are using to tackle societal challenges

Research leaders across the Asia-Pacific region talk about how their universities are broadening the scope of academic research and higher education

Yonsei University in Seoul, South Korea, co-hosted the 5th Annual Asia Pacific Research Intelligence Conference. The event, organized by Elsevier, brought together more than 200 of the region's research leaders.
Yonsei University in Seoul, South Korea, co-hosted the 5th Annual Asia Pacific Research Intelligence Conference. The event, organized by Elsevier, brought together more than 200 of the region's research leaders.

Today, the world is facing complex challenges in the areas of health, energy, environment, sustenance and social justice.

As such, universities are increasingly recognizing that they can play a role in addressing these challenges, often becoming catalysts of new industries, centers of scientific discovery that precipitate new treatments and products, or sources of evidence from which policy can be made.

As they navigate this new reality, should institutes of higher learning remain in their traditional role as centers of knowledge creation and dispersion? Or should they take on a new role, engaging with the broader stakeholder community to solve grand challenges of the modern age?

The topic of “World Class Universities for Societal Impact” was deliberated at the 5th Asia Pacific Research Intelligence Conference, organized by Elsevier and co-hosted by Yonsei University in Seoul, South Korea. Many of Asia’s research leaders shared best practices and their experience, and three key themes emerged.

1. Broadening the scope – but sharpening the focus

 Prof. Yong-Hak Kim, President of Yonsei University, gives the keynote address.

In his keynote address, Yonsei University President Prof. Yong-Hak Kim posited that the future of higher education and academic research will increasingly focus on addressing global and community challenges –  such as the UN’s 17 sustainable development goals (SDGs) – to alleviate social instability. As an example, Dr. Kim is steering his university towards solving such issues with the establishment of the Institute of Global Engagement and Empowerment and working with UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon to combat climate change.

Elsevier Chairman Youngsuk "YS" Chi

The subject was also highlighted by Elsevier Chairman Youngsuk “YS” Chi, recalling an example from a visiting professor whose student, for a final-year project, wanted to develop a solution to help Ugandan farmers improve their productivity rate. “Clearly, she had found an important issue to tackle, but the problem was it’s just too big,” Chi said. “You can’t have an impact as a start-up if you try and tackle a broad issue.”

He proposed that the first task to addressing any challenge is to scale the problem down to something addressable, and he called for universities to differentiate themselves by creating genuinely unique work to be truly outstanding. “Everybody wants to solve massive problems in the world,” he said, “but when you really get down to it, you need to have a narrow and targeted approach.”

2. Collaboration and societal engagement is key to innovation

Prof. Aidan Byrne, Provost and Senior Vice President of the University of Queensland in Australia.

Although identifying the right areas of research to invest in and finding innovative approaches are key to solving complex issues, Chi added that it’s equally crucial “to remove any barriers that exist within the scientific community and partner the right people.” Citing a recent study where a group of authors from different institutions around the world wanted to understand the underlying drivers behind the development of the five major anti-cancer drugs, Chi revealed that the drugs were the result of 230,000 authors collaborating on roughly 100,000 papers. “Forty of these publications were directly connected to the investment of not just of one but all five of these anti-cancer drugs,” he said. “This shows just how important collaboration is to life-saving scientific discoveries.”

Prof. Aidan Byrne, Provost and Senior Vice President of the University of Queensland, Australia, suggested that in a time when universities are no longer perceived as the only sources of policy advice, repositories of knowledge or centers of skills training, the academic community has responded with an increased focus on the integration of universities into broader socio-economic missions.

“We’re going to have to think a lot harder about how to measure the value of the contributions that universities make,” he said, adding that the question of value has led to the rise of the impact and engagement agendas. He suggested that analytics can be the differentiating factor that can help institutions identify areas of optimum engagement to benefit society as this will allow institutions to direct the required resources to the most appropriate causes.

Prof. Noorsaadah Abd. Rahman, Deputy Vice Chancellor for Research and Innovation at the University of Malaya in Malaysia.

Meanwhile, the University of Malaya, Malaysia, engages in social innovation as its response to complex, multi-faceted problems by organizing itself into six research clusters to undertake research projects that have the potential to transform and positively impact the wider community. Prof. Noorsaadah Abd. Rahman, Deputy Vice Chancellor for Research and Innovation, explained that this pragmatic development was a result of her university being constantly challenged with the notion that “poor people cannot be paid for by citations” from government agencies seeking a return on research investment and economic benefits to society from their funding.

Dr. Rahman added that beyond their traditional role of providing education and disseminating knowledge, universities are now required to take on a larger mantle in how they contribute to public benefits and play a transformative role in people’s lives.

3. The role of university branding

Dr. Euiho Suh, Associate Vice President for Strategy & Excellence at Daegu Gyeongbuk Institute of Science & Technology in South Korea.

For Dr. Euiho Suh, Associate Vice President for Strategy & Excellence at Daegu Gyeongbuk Institute of Science & Technology in South Korea, the goal of a university is to attract quality graduates in order to produce quality research that will eventually benefit society. Dr. Suh emphasised that establishing a strong global brand – comprising institutional data, research performance and global reputation – is key to gaining greater exposure and getting noticed.

Tania Rhodes-Taylor, Vice Principal of External Relations at The University of Sydney in Australia

Observing that most university branding and marketing efforts are generic, Tania Rhodes-Taylor, Vice Principal of External Relations at The University of Sydney, Australia, mentioned that they also tend to be student-recruitment led: “No one will be able to tell who you are, nobody can tell what your values are, nobody can tell you what your strengths are, nobody can tell you what your reputation is.”

Rhodes-Taylor said that creating a strong differentiation from competition is necessary for a university to stand out from the crowd, and elaborated that her university underwent a rebranding campaign, Unlearn, after noticing dissonance on how it was being perceived and what it aspired to be. She believes that setting her university apart is especially necessary when many institutions are facing funding challenges with a decline in traditional sources of income; experiencing increased competition for students, academics and investment; and having to address changing expectations towards the role universities play in society. “Universities are responsible for managing their own branding or others will,” she stated.

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