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The Future of Higher Education Is Social Impact

How can we transform the university research enterprise to enhance its social impact?

Over the last decade, universities have faced steady criticism for elitist practices such as political bias, hoarding wealthy endowments, and providing insufficient economic returns for students. In light of this, institutions that turn their attention to serving the public good may be best poised to thrive and deliver lasting value. Some universities are embarking on innovations to support social engagement among students, and initiating university-wide efforts to educate students for social impact. These ideas rightly aim to prepare public-minded leaders for the future. But a powerful innovation is also available for the present: reshaping incentives within the university to support faculty research that responds to real-life challenges.

Typically, researchers are insulated from the criticisms of pundits and politicians who question whether universities deserve the status and privileges they enjoy. University faculty operate within a system that rarely asks them to prove their value to a broader public. Rather, academics are rewarded for developing and testing theories, and publishing findings in books and journals in their fields. Their charge is to generate knowledge, and many do so prolifically. But unlike in engineering and medicine, where transferring new knowledge into workable technology is often regarded as the ultimate professional accomplishment, such “tech transfer” is uncommon in the social sciences. Despite innovation in the content of research, research institutions in the social sciences have not been innovative when it comes to ensuring that the outside world uses research. Yet such innovation may be the key to social impact, and thus demonstrating the value of research to those who question its worth.

Some writers argue that social science research fails to break into the mainstream because it is not sufficiently timely, relevant, or accessible—and that is no doubt part of the story. But studies about the use of research paint a more complex picture. More than any quality of the evidence itself, it turns out that the quality of relationships between producers and consumers of evidence, as well as the intermediaries who knit evidence producers and consumers together, is at the heart of increasing research use in policy and practice. Universities do not typically reward faculty for the time and effort needed to build and nurture these relationships, but doing so would be a transformative step in increasing the positive social impact of academic research.

Relationships between producers and consumers of evidence are at the heart of increasing research use in policy and practice. (Photo by Tanya Braganti for the William T. Grant Foundation)

The idea that universities should foster relationships with and respond to their communities is not new. The University of Wisconsin-Madison, where I taught for three decades, has long promoted the notion that “the boundaries of the university are the boundaries of the state,” meaning that the university should produce knowledge that promotes a thriving social, cultural, political, and economic life across the state. While this notion persists, it has lately battled with a competing view among leading members of state government, who believe the primary role of the university is to prepare workers for the state’s labor market. Meanwhile, other large universities are making progress in developing and incentivizing the types of relationship-building that can improve and strengthen communities outside of campus. Rice University, for example, has adopted as one of its main goals to “engage Houston and empower its success,” proclaiming, “We will engage Houston as a focus and partner for research and education, leveraging our broad expertise on critical urban issues to be a driving force in enabling Houston’s success as a 21st-century metropolis.” Among the specific efforts supported by the university is the Houston Education Research Consortium (HERC), a partnership between the university and the Houston Independent School District that conducts research aimed at addressing the challenges of educating Houston’s urban population. Since 2013, HERC has provided 25 research reports to the district on topics such as English learners and school choice, the effectiveness of the district’s pre-kindergarten program, and predictors of high school dropout, and others. The district has used these reports its decisionmaking. Partnerships of this sort help strengthen communities by growing their human and social capital, while also brandishing the value of the university to the state and city: HERC and its parent organization have attracted considerable philanthropic support from civic-minded allies who support the university’s local engagement.

Without support at the institutional level, most university researchers have little professional incentive to participate in such partnerships or address questions more in line with local contexts. It is time for this to change. To spur such action and provide an example for universities across the nation, my colleagues and I at the William T. Grant Foundationrecently launched a grants competition for universities willing to re-think their incentive structures, and reward engaged scholarship and research-practice partnerships. TheInstitutional Challenge Grant program calls on universities to partner with a public agency or nonprofit, develop a joint research agenda, provide research fellows to execute the research, and build the capacity of the agency to use evidence from research in its decisionmaking. In addition, the grant asks that the university propose new ways to support and reward faculty members who participate in this type of work. For example, universities might provide teaching releases or summer salary, or count the influence of research on policy and practice in career advancement decisions.

After receiving bids from 41 institutions, in April we awarded the first grant to Cornell University, which is working in partnership with the Cornell Cooperative Extension of Tompkins County to address the opioid crisis in upstate New York, particularly the increasing rate of child maltreatment that has accompanied rising opioid addiction. Researchers will evaluate two evidence-based interventions based in the judicial and child welfare systems, and help providers develop effective responses to the problems they confront. Even before applying for the grant, Cornell had taken steps to engage its local community through auniversity initiative that fosters research and other activities with community partners. The current work will push the university even further in thinking about how to develop an infrastructure in which faculty are rewarded for participating in partnerships and conducting research that responds to community concerns.

Professors Laura Tach (foreground) and Rachel Dunifon of Cornell University and Anna Steinkraus (background) of Cornell Cooperative Extension of Tompkins County plan their partnership. (Photo courtesy of Cornell University)

Ultimately, pursuing positive social impact by harnessing the talent and knowledge of university faculty can turn around perceptions of the value of higher education. But faculty will need to become more fully engaged in directly responding to real-world problems. As currently structured, universities offer few rewards for researchers who participate in partnerships primarily designed to improve policy and practice. Reorienting incentives in the university—not to diminish theory-driven, internationally renowned studies, but to enhance the value and visibility of work that provides answers for those who confront the daily challenges of today’s world—can go a long way toward making the change possible.


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Private Sector to Help Drive Indonesia’s Public Education Overhaul: F&E Group

Indonesia/September 26, 2017/Source:

Indonesia’s education sector will receive a big boost from a more robust involvement from the private sector to complement existing government efforts to improve the quality of public education in Southeast Asia’s largest economy.

F&E Group unveiled a comprehensive plan to inject investment into the public education sector in the country ahead of its Global Educational Supplies and Solutions Indonesia (GESS Indonesia) event, which will take place on Sept. 27-29 at the Jakarta Convention Center.

«Our research shows that Indonesia has already made tremendous strides in improving access to basic education over the past two decades. Efforts are now being made to improve quality, but will need more private sector initiatives to support ongoing government programs aimed at improving teacher performance, as well as student learning experiences and skills that will help them become active contributors to Indonesia’s economy,» F&E Group project director Matt Thompson said in a statement.

According to a United Nations Population Fund report, Indonesia will have 65 million young people joining the workforce by 2035, as the education system is largely expected to give them the requisite skills to become employable.

The report prompted action from the Ministry of Education and Culture, which said the government is currently trying to local empower students to be capable of competing for jobs in Indonesia, or anywhere in the world.

«We are constantly reviewing our policies and programs to ensure no one is left behind, and each student is given the right education to be competent and competitive enough,» said Ananto Kusuma Seta, the Education Ministry’s special adviser for innovation and competitiveness.

Digital Education Market

With policy reforms designed to create a more accessible and responsive education system in the country, the government will also aim to reach its goal of raising the annual per capita income from $3500 in 2011 to $14,250 by 2025 through crucial technology adaptations as smartphone penetration in Indonesia is forecast to reach 100 million users in 2018.

To meet these demands, Indosat’s Ooredoo pledged $1 million in 2015 to enhance digital education aimed at providing cloud-based interactive classroom materials, tablets to schools in five provinces across the country and training teachers to possess necessary IT skills.

On the other hand, educational tech start-ups are also sprouting in Indonesia to help address the flourishing digital education market, like HarukaEdu, ArsaKids, KelasX, Cakra, Rabbit Hole, Generasi Cerdas, Youth Manual and Mediafon.

The GESS exhibition is expected to see more than 100 education suppliers and brands from across the globe showcase a wide range of products and solutions geared towards Indonesia’s education market.

These products include cutting-edge digital tools and software aimed at improving the teaching and learning experience in classrooms.

«In addition, we will also have a pavilion dedicated to start-ups as a way of supporting the private sector’s initiatives in implementing programs that hope to complement the government’s ongoing efforts to improve the quality of education in Indonesia,» Thompson said.

GESS Indonesia’s admission is free for education professionals and will consist of over 100 sessions, workshops and presentations covering a variety of topics and themes addressing opportunities and challenges in Indonesia’s education sector.



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