East Asia hosted two very interesting conferences during the past four weeks. The first was held in Beijing in October entitled “International Conference on Learning Cities”, co-hosted by UNESCO Institute for Lifelong Learning, Hamburg. The second, last week, was held in Hong Kong SAR, entitled “Cities Learning Together”, co-hosted by Pascal International Laboratories. The focus on both conversations was supporting mayors and municipalities to become learning cities for all its citizens, a sort of inclusive learning cities.
In both these conferences, roles of higher education institutions (HEIs) came in for discussion. While it was generally acknowledged that HEIs can play very useful roles in supporting mayors and cities to become inclusive, it was mostly unclear how this could be achieved in practice. It was interesting to note that conversations about community engagement of HEIs in East Asia have been somewhat less vocal and audible. The rapidly growing enrolments in higher education in China have resulted in a growing push for ranking in the global university order, without focus on local relevance of curriculum, pedagogy or research.
In addition, universities in Korea, Japan and Hong Kong have been functioning in the usual elitist manner where admission to post-secondary educational institutions is still being viewed as a privilege. Leaders and academics in universities of these countries consider ‘engagement’ outside the campus as not their mandate, and somewhat ‘lowering’ the academic status and excellence. This mind-set continues to result in resistance from inside the universities to any support for serious and authentic engagement with institutions like municipalities, except as ‘invited experts’ to provide specialized knowledge. In building inclusive learning cities, mayors would have to ensure that partnerships with HEIs do not exclude those citizens who do not have the privileged access to higher education yet.
An important lesson from the region is that there are smaller, private, faith-based universities which pursue such engagement holistically. A powerful example is Lingnan University in Hong Kong which is celebrating its 125th anniversary. Its motto is ‘education for service’, and its curriculum and teaching provides many students continuous opportunities to learn from engagement in the real world. Yet, it faces official and peer pressures to conform so that it can also ‘chase’ the world ranking sweepstakes.
As cities become more important in the national and global economy, as mayors acquire greater status and political voice, HEIs can serve the large social transformation agenda by developing strong and mutually supportive partnerships with mayors and their networks.
November 26, 2013