Hong Kong universities should connect more with the community to deliver social impact, says pioneering new report commissioned by the British Council and authored by UK-HK academics

‘Surveying the landscape of social innovation and higher education in Hong Kong’ is a first-of-its-kind research study that investigates the state of social innovation amongst all of eight of Hong Kong’s publicly funded universities. The report, funded by the Social Innovation Entrepreneurship and Development Fund (SIE Fund), explores the emerging social innovation (SI) research and teaching trends in Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) in Hong Kong, as well as the systemic and institutional barriers universities face in pursuing SI. It also looks at the challenges HEIs face in connecting their SI research and teaching with the community to achieve social change and includes a series of recommendations on how to enhance the role of the university as an engaged and active institution that creates social value.
 
The researchers – academics from The Hong Kong Polytechnic University and the University of Northampton and the University of Oxford, UK – gathered quantitative and qualitative data from an in-depth literature review and a total of 52 online surveys and 17 interviews with 22 participants across eight HEIs in Hong Kong. The study is of particular importance given that, to date, there is no baseline data in relation to SI in Hong Kong’s HE sector. It has been commissioned as part of the British Council’s Building Research Innovation for Community Knowledge and Sustainability (BRICKS) programme, a Hong Kong-UK initiative that aims to catalyse HEIs, social enterprises, NGOs and other organisations to collaborate to find innovative solutions to social issues in Hong Kong, funded by the SIE Fund. The research findings were launched in Hong Kong today (12 September) as part of the BRICKS conference: ‘Unleashing social innovation to enhance the social impact of higher education institutions’.
 
The findings show that although there is a growing research base (42 academic publications) and number of courses (49, with a further seven due to start this month) related to SI in Hong Kong HEIs, much of the research activity is theoretical and case-study focused (62 per cent) rather than applied or practical in nature and is centered on social entrepreneurship rather than specifically SI. The majority of the courses (66 per cent) are elective undergraduate modules built into existing degree programmes, while only four HEIs (University of Hong Kong, HKUST, Hong Kong PolyU and HKBU) account for 63 per cent of them.
 
Numerous research participants highlighted the need for greater collaboration and embedded teaching with real life engagement with SI as being crucial but missing from the Hong Kong HEI ecosystem. Only 28 per cent of the research projects identified and just one of the teaching programmes were found to be collaborative (inter-HEI). In terms of knowledge exchange (KE – the sharing of research outcomes and expertise with industry, government and the public), of a total of 24 KE SI projects, less than half were partnerships with NGOs. In addition, 79 per cent of all community engagement work took the form of board/honorary roles or panel/committee membership, rather than active research-led engagement, while just six academics accounted for nearly half of the lead authorship on all 50 publications looked at in the report.
 
According to the study, barriers to collaborative research in Hong Kong include a lack of SI champions in universities and a lack of top-down support for impact research. It also attributes the lack of applied research in Hong Kong to the fact that the majority of research funding comes from HEIs and research grant funders (53 per cent) and universities looking for publication in high-ranking academic journals. It also suggests that competition between HEIs stifles collaboration and coproduction of research and both HEIs and NGOs are too protective over intellectual property (IP).
 
Report co-author, Dr Yanto Chandra, Associate Professor, Department of Applied Social Sciences at The Hong Kong Polytechnic University, said:
“While the main finding of the report shows that SI-focused research and teaching is growing in Hong Kong, the research shows that there is a lack of collaboration amongst HEIs and between HEIs and the wider community. Collaboration is a key component of successful SI approaches globally and therefore it is important that we build an ecosystem in Hong Kong that encourages closer working amongst HEIs and between HEIs and NGOs and other organisations if SI research and teaching initiatives are to deliver social impact in the city.”
 
Jeff Streeter, Director of the British Council in Hong Kong, said:
“This report recognises the existing breadth of excellence that is already in place across SI research, teaching and community engagement in the Hong Kong HE sector, but seeks to offer insights as to how this excellence can be built upon. At the British Council, we believe that new approaches to teaching and research in higher education and cross-collaborations between academic institutions, social innovators and entrepreneurs, social service providers and NGOs in Hong Kong and the UK can help us find answers to complex local and global challenges.”
 
Key social problems facing Hong Kong identified through participant survey responses in the research included: social inequality, elderly/ageing issues and housing (59 per cent in total). Health was identified as a key determinant of all these other issues, showing the interrelated nature of social problems in Hong Kong and reinforcing the need for a collaborative, multi-agency approach to solve them.
 
The report’s key recommendations include:
 
HEIs should:
-facilitate community engagement and coproduction in SI research, in order to develop innovative solutions to existing social problems that are actually needed by communities
-recognise key individuals leading on SI research and teaching within the Hong Kong HE sector, and support them to further develop research, teaching and knowledge exchange activities
-make changes to tenure criteria to acknowledge the value of applied, impactful research
-alongside the Hong Kong government, ensure that sufficient training and support is in place to develop the capacity and skills of lecturers and practitioners to raise skill levels in embedded, practice-led teaching
-collaborate with each other on degree programmes in relation to teaching (e.g. shared guest lectures) and implement full joint degree programmes where possible.
-ensure that SI courses have embedded teaching and learning (guest lecturers, student placements, competitions) so that learners can engage in applied learning
-deliver certificated training courses in partnership with NGOs and social enterprises, both within and outside of Hong Kong
-establish funds to support staff/student social start-ups and spin-outs
 
The Hong Kong government and academic funding bodies (notably University Grants Committee – UGC) should:
-take centralised strategic action to raise awareness of SI amongst key stakeholders and the public
-establish research funding streams that encourage the implementation of multi-disciplinary, pan-institutional, applied research
 
UGC and international NGOs (i.e. the British Council) should:
-encourage cross-sector collaborations and partnerships in research and teaching through the creation of applied impact funds and international knowledge exchange programmes.

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