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How is social responsibility changing international education?

It feels as if 2012 has seen an explosion of the greater good within business and institutional practice. This year, more than 250 higher education institutions backed a Higher Education Initiative for Sustainable Development at Rio+20, the UN’s Sustainable Development Conference. Meanwhile, within the predominantly private international language teaching sector, there has been a rush to demonstrate corporate commitment – and a system of rating schools for their efforts unveiled by a major agency.

EC has appointed CSR Champions in every one of its school centres: "responsible behaviour is our signature"EC has appointed CSR Champions in every one of its school centres: "responsible behaviour is our signature"

There is no doubt about it, sustainable and ethical business practice is now a hot topic in international education. A commitment to Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) has seen internal and external projects and developments all nodding towards the role that the education sector should play in building a better world.

Based in Montreux, Switzerland and with 37 sales offices, ESL is a study abroad agency which sends thousands of students around the world to over 250 destinations each year. After working with external consultants to build its own CSR action plan, ESL unveiled a tool for others.

Krister Weidenhielm, head of products and purchase at the company, explains that the ESL “CSR self-assessment tool” enables the company’s partner language schools to rate their own efforts. And – importantly for ESL – a company’s CSR rating can be displayed for consumers as another decision-making factor, alongside location, price, etc.

Weidenhielm is a passionate advocate of CSR as a complete shift in company mindset

Weidenhielm is passionate that CSR can, and should, change the way a business functions as a whole. He says, “Slowly but surely, corporations have to decide how their organisation can offer more value to stakeholders. CSR guidelines unavoidably lead to sustainable development; a blueprint for creating added value.”

He is passionate that CSR can, and should, change the way a business functions as a whole

In the higher education world, efforts are also proliferating. Professor Rob Rabel, Pro-Vice Chancellor, International at Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand, is careful to point out that universities can’t fund charities – but they can encourage pro-sustainable activities that relate to education. His university facilitates projects via the Victoria International Leadership Programme (VILP). “We want projects to have a real impact, often in Asia,” he says.

In the UK, “The UK HE” charity was launched last year that aims to position UK HE as a responsible recruiter and ‘give back’ to the disadvantaged in the countries from which it recruits.

And Universitas Indonesia has developed a GreenMetric ranking – encouraging universities to participate in a world ranking of university sustainability. It has measured the sustainability of 178 universities operating in 42 countries.

But why are companies, universities and schools so interested? Many, like Weidenhielm, say the appeal of CSR is that it inspires innovation – as well as being intrinsically linked to marketing and the value-added proposition.

Taylor (left) and Lane Clark of CCEL, Canada, at the rooftop herb garden

CCEL, a Canadian English-language college, has dramatically altered the way it teaches its international clientele out of an aim to be more sustainable. In 2007, the company was shocked to be handed an award for recycling a large amount of paper. In response to the award, the management decided to cut the amount of paper the school used – by 100%. The target to cut paper consumption forced CCEL to take an entirely new approach to business.

“We’ve seen very clearly that a socially responsible model has strong benefits within the population”

“We’ve now pushed that down into our classrooms”, explains Zach Taylor, chief marketing officer at the school – which grows herbs on its roof garden that are used in the in-house cafe.

“We have eliminated textbooks from our classrooms by creating an online interactive web-based curriculum. We’re able to update it more frequently than a textbook – it’s always changing and evolving.”

Edulang is another company enjoying the success of innovative CSR-motivated ideas. Edulang’s popular ‘Pay What You Want’ online scheme offers learners worldwide to pay a minimum charge of one dollar for language materials, with 50% of any extra payment going to the charity Room to Read. “The viral effect is inherent in our programme”, says social media manager, Brad Patterson.

“Teachers from across the globe write to ask how they can help in our efforts”, says Brad Patterson. “We’ve seen very clearly that a socially responsible model has strong benefits within the population.” [more>>]

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