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What can the global South teach us about health promoting and sustainable higher education? Lessons from the Okanagan Charter

  • 2 July 2020
  • By Jack Ruane

This blog was kindly contributed in a personal capacity by Jack Ruane, MA Student in Education, Health Promotion and International Development at the UCL Institute of Education. This research has formed the basis of his dissertation and a report to be published on behalf of EAUC. Jack is not on Twitter, but you can reach him by email at jack.ruane.18@ucl.ac.uk .

In February 2020, Policy Exchange published Universities at the Crossroads, which called on the UK higher education sector to better demonstrate its value to the communities it serves and to be more radical in addressing what needs to change.

Since then, the Covid-19 pandemic has amplified the voices calling for change in all sectors, with many hoping it can produce a shift towards long-term policies that benefit the health and wellbeing of communities and ramp up climate action.

Higher education is no exception. As Lucian Hudson noted in his recent HEPI blog post, the recovery from the Covid-19 pandemic could be a catalyst to reorient higher education towards societal impact, by building on existing global initiatives such as the Sustainable Development Goals Accord facilitated by EAUC (‘the alliance for sustainability leadership in education’) and the Times Higher Education Impact ranking.

The Okanagan Charter was written in 2015 and sought to culminate various health-promoting university movements globally. It envisions how higher education institutions can:

transform the health and sustainability of our current and future societies, strengthen communities and contribute to the well-being of people, places and the planet.

Its socio-ecological view of health, in which the health of people and the planet are seen as interdependent, has renewed resonance in the post-Covid-19 era. The pandemic has highlighted that processes that harm the climate, such as deforestation, globalisation and urbanisation, are also those which cause poor health. Hence, scientists have called for a One Health approach, in which the complex interconnections between the health of people, animals, plants and our shared environment are recognised, and protection of the environment is respected as a matter of public health.

The Charter has two calls to action. The first is focused on the campus setting and the second is on teaching and research:

  1. embed health into all aspects of campus culture, across the administration, operations and academic mandates; and
  2. lead health promotion action and collaboration locally and globally.

A One Health approach is the basis of a report being prepared on behalf of EAUC on how higher education institutions are promoting health and sustainability in the global South through their teaching, operations, student engagement and research. Spanning Latin America, Africa and the Asia-Pacific regions, the report collates case studies from nine countries showcasing innovative practices in order to inform policy globally. Using a combination of desk-based research and remote interviews, five key themes identified in the research are summarised below.

1. Harnessing distance learning for sustainability impact

The University of South Africa was the first public higher education institution to teach exclusively by distance in the world, which has allowed it to provide education to students irrespective of colour or creed throughout South Africa’s history. Today, it has embedded project-based tasks into its formative assessment that require students to interact with sustainability issues in their local area, wherever that may be. Such an approach redefines the borders of the campus and expands the area in which the university can affect positive change on the environment.

2. Demand-Driven Research

At the publicly funded Universidad de la Republica, Uruguay (UDELAR), research agendas are not set by academics or the search for valuable patents. Instead, they must show research serves the public good or addresses the needs of civil society organisations. Notable public health successes from this policy have been the formulation of new artificial skin and an overhaul of nutrition at public schools. Unusually, undergraduates are also encouraged to conduct research, provided it is in the public interest, with the university effectively acting as a funder for these projects.

3. Applied Teaching and Learning

Most higher education institutions globally would make the claim their pedagogy is grounded in real-world situations, but the extent to which students actually apply their knowledge during their courses is questionable. At Earth University in Costa Rica, students learn through real-world activities, such as running self-sufficient campus restaurants and launching sustainable agriculture businesses funded by the university during their first year.

Earth’s applied approach to teaching sustainability has yielded positive results, as many students were found to have ‘a positive social, economic and environmental influence in their communities of origin’ using sustainable management techniques learned at the university.

4. International Collaboration

Makerere University, Uganda has utilised global partnerships with (global) Northern higher education institutions to produce positive bilateral health outcomes. In one such collaboration with Nottingham Trent University (NTU), the universities’ partnership promoted knowledge exchange in programme development and teaching, joint research and staff and student exchange.

Makerere’s use of community health workers as a form of disease prevention was studied and broadened to community health-promoting organisations in Nottingham, whilst NTU has also contributed to strengthening Uganda’s health system.

5. Porosity with the Local Community

Valuing local contexts and priorities is a key principle of the Okanagan Charter, which is exemplified by numerous higher education institutions in the research. However, the University of Development Studies, Ghana has incorporated interaction with and service to the community into its very course structure. It operates a trimester system in which all undergraduates are deployed to impoverished areas to conduct dialogue and launch participatory projects to aid the community during an eight week placement at the end of each academic year.

Although these case studies vary in the ease with which they can be replicated, they provide examples of higher education institutions demonstrating their value to communities and addressing the dual crises of the health of people and the planet.

Adoption of practices from the global South at higher education institutions in the Global North would be a reversal of the usual trend, but would be akin to the radical approach called for by Universities at the Crossroads and the 2030 agenda more broadly.

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