Around the world, the social role of higher education has garnered interest and generated important discussion. It is commonly agreed that alongside their research and teaching functions, academic institutions should also promote what has been termed their “third mission”. Important efforts have been made in recent years to further the understanding of the social role of the university. The Talloires network for instance, provides an international forum of institutions committed to strengthening their social responsibilities. In Europe specifically, the social contribution of higher education has gained ground through the elaboration of a ‘social dimension’ to accompany the Bologna Process reforms.
Social responsibility has become an important promotional feature for higher education institutions. University mission statements, websites and promotional materials regularly highlight an institution’s commitment to community engagement and public responsibility. Despite the growing importance of university social responsibility at a declarative level, its implementation in practice is not clear cut. The very notion of what constitutes social responsibility in the higher education realm remains ambiguous. Moreover, notwithstanding important efforts, a coherent and all-encompassing approach both within and between academic institutions, to strengthening social responsibility, is far from complete.
The European Commission funded, Tempus-ESPRIT (Enhancing the Social Characteristics and Public Responsibility of Israeli Teaching through an HEI-Student Alliance) project, coordinated by the Centre for the Study of European Politics and Society – Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, was developed with the aim of delineating the social responsibility of higher education and clarifying its features, as well as to test models for its enhancement in Israeli universities. Academic institutions and organisations in Israel and Europe [i] as well as the European Students’ Union (ESU) and the National Union of Israeli Students (NUIS) took part in the project, launched in 2012, and culminating this month.
The project’s overall goal is to analyze, map and strengthen the social and public roles of higher education institutions in Israel. To this end, three main pillars were pursued. At an initial phase a mapping exercise was conducted in order to shed light on the level of social engagement of Israeli students/faculty and their perceptions towards social responsibility. A second pillar involved the development of models and guidelines for the design of curriculum with a social engagement component. A digital platform was also produced to serve as a resource center and contact point to promote dialogue between faculty working on these types of courses.
Finally, the project saw the development and testing of a Social Benchmarking Tool (SBT) to assess and compare academic institutions according to their social missions. Together, these three pillars aimed to sharpen the understanding of social responsibility in academic institutions as well as enhance this feature in the partner institutions.
On November 21st, ESPRIT project partners and invited guests representing different higher education stakeholders, gathered at the ESU headquarters in Brussels, for a final roundtable to discuss the project’s outcomes and its relevance for Israel and Europe. A number of important themes emerged from this meeting shedding further light on the potential of academic social responsibility efforts in Israel, Europe and beyond.
The Social responsibility of universities – promoting a wide definition
Recognisant of the wide-ranging interpretations of social responsibility as it relates to higher education, one of the very first tasks of the ESPRIT consortium was to draft a working definition which would guide its activities and objectives. The notion of social responsibility was given a wide interpretation – relating to the university’s external actions on the one hand, and its internal policy on the other. A university’s social responsibility is reflected in its community outreach programmes, ‘socially engaged’ courses, partnerships and actions benefiting their surrounding neighborhoods and society in general. It should also be apparent in the institution’s internal functioning; ethical codes, transparency, employment policies, sustainable development etc; and relating to student, staff and faculty wellbeing.
During the roundtable, the challenge of promoting social responsibility in the internal domain was considered. Participants highlighted the fact that the internal social policy is often more difficult to discuss and promote, while academic institutions more easily disseminate their ‘external’ actions of community engagement and public responsibility. Yet, project partners emphasized the importance of seeing the internal and external domains as one common framework; a university’s degree of social responsibility is dependent on both its external and internal actions- they should be understood as intertwined, not as separate entities.
Benchmarking University Social Responsibility – An opportunity
Rankings and Benchmarking mechanisms have been gaining momentum in the field of higher education. These systems are primarily focused on the research and teaching functions of universities, generally overlooking their “third mission”. The ESPRIT project aims to add another dimension to benchmarking; one which recognizes that alongside research and teaching, institutions should also be measured by their social characteristics.
The Social Benchmarking Tool (SBT) was initiated by the National Union of Israeli Students against the backdrop of a growing social awareness and engagement amongst Israeli students. NUIS representatives understood that students and prospective students are increasingly interested in the degree of social engagement and responsibility in their current or potential academic institutions. The SBT was thus perceived as valuable to provide a transparent picture of the social responsibility feature of universities as well as for offering university management with a self-assessment tool to enhance their social policy.
The SBT proposes a data collection mechanism for academic institutions to assess their social policy and compare where they stand vis a vis other institutions. The self-administered questionnaire collects data from a variety of sources within the institution and relates to different features of social responsibility-equality, wellbeing, ethical conduct and environmental policy.
The value and innovative character of the SBT for both Israeli and European partner institutions was emphasized. From both a student and institutional perspective, the SBT was discussed as holding important potential for furthering the social functions of universities. Participants also considered the challenges involved in promoting such a mechanism, in particular considering the priority given to the research and teaching functions of higher education. A conceptual shift was proposed in which social responsibility should not be understood as a “third pillar”, rather as an inherent feature of all other functions of higher education.
Importance of the student voice in enhancing social responsibility
The importance of student involvement in the promotion of social responsibility was a common theme elaborated throughout the project. The ESPRIT project was founded upon the notion that both students and institutions will inevitably play a part in strengthening the social role of academia. As such, project activities were guided by a university-student alliance, reflected in the active involvement of both the National Union of Israeli Students and the European Students’ Union.
The importance of the student voice was re-iterated during the roundtable. Student Union representatives highlighted the fact that there is often a disconnect between student and faculty/staff perceptions on a wide variety of issues, including those related to social responsibility. Working together on these matters offers a valuable bridge to close the perception gap and provides a mutually beneficial and effective framework. The significance of this partnership was also evoked by university representatives at the meeting, who stressed the important breakthrough of the ESPRIT project in this regard, particularly in the Israeli context.
The questions raised in the Tempus-ESPRIT project are of international relevance and will undoubtedly continue to be debated and elaborated in the years to come. The project provided EU and Israeli partner institutions the benefit of mutual learning and discussion on crucial questions of social responsibility in the academic realm. While the university/student alliance is vital to promoting an effective social responsibility agenda, the cooperation between institutions, student unions and different countries is also valued. These collaborations deepen the discussion on important issues relevant to higher education stakeholders and to society as a whole.
Hannah Moscovitz is a PhD Candidate at the Department of Politics and Government, Ben-Gurion University of the Negev (Israel). Hannah works as part of the Tempus-ESPRIT coordinating team at the Centre for the Study of European Politics and Society, Ben-Gurion University of the Negev.
[i] Project partners include: Ben-Gurion University of the Negev; Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design; Interdisciplinary Center Herzlyia; Hebrew University of Jerusalem; Tel-Hai Academic College; University of Brighton; Center for Higher Education, Consult; Masaryk University; University of Santiago de Compostela.