Engaged universities contribute to economic development

Engaged universities – those that see engaging with the wider community as part and parcel of their mission – can use these activities to contribute to economic development too. Around the globe, universities are doing this in various ways, some in ways you might expect, others in ways that might surprise you.

But there is plenty more for them to do. Academics and civic engagement activists grappled with the question of the best ways to do it at the Talloires Network Leaders Conference in Cape Town this month, where economic development was one of three main themes.

The most obvious way in which universities contribute to economic development, particularly locally, is as employers and purchasers of goods and services.

Ira Harkavy, director of the Netter Center for Community Partnerships at the University of Pennsylvania in the United States, is an advocate of the idea of universities as anchor institutions. These are non-profit organisations that never move and are therefore highly motivated to invest in their geographic location.

A university attracts businesses and highly skilled people to a city and may offer cultural amenities such as museums, theatres and extension courses for the city’s people and those of the surrounding area. As a consumer of large tracts of land, it can have a significant impact on local builders.

Harkavy argues that, together with medical institutions, universities act as powerful economic engines in cities. “In the city of Philadelphia, eight out of 10 of the largest employers are meds and eds,” he says, and this pattern is to be found in big cities across the US.

So far so good. But what does this have to do with civic engagement you may ask? The answer lies in the how as much as the what.

If a university makes meeting civic goals part of its economic decisions, by deciding to buy locally or employ more women or people from ethnic minorities for instance, the economic impact becomes civic too.

“So even traditional activities can be transformed through the aims, goals and the process of how the university works,” says Harkavy. “If they are designed to benefit both the community and the university, you can take standard activities, like teaching, research, technology and business development and transform them into a civic activity.”

Benefits from research

Academic research that creates new knowledge is a second obvious example. If a local company takes this up and applies it successfully, there will be benefits for the local business community and beyond.

Ernest Aryeetey, vice-chancellor of the University of Ghana, gives as an example when a company wants to set up an agricultural venture and asks the university to help find reliable sources of water.

“The difference between this and conventional consultancy work is that this is a small targeted action and the university is not charging for its services as the cost may already be built into a research project,” he says.

And when university researchers work with business to meet a community need or solve a social problem, the civic ingredient in the mix is clear.

Plastic bags are a big cause of pollution the world over; Ghana is no exception. The University of Ghana’s institutes of science and technology and of environment and sanitation studies are currently working with local manufacturers for the food processing industry.

“Community groups are very interested in encouraging business to use biodegradable materials in packaging," says Aryeetey, “but they still need to be cheap and durable so people can afford them.”

A second example from the University of Ghana is the work of the Noguchi Memorial Institute for Medical Research with mainly Japanese companies on malaria. Work, including research, clinical trials and testing of insecticide-treated nets, has been going on for a decade.

“Most interventions of the Ghanaian government in the fight against malaria are based on research by this institute after contact with the community,” says Aryeetey, “…During this time the number of children dying of malaria has gone down considerably.”

Training must be relevant

Educating young people is the second fundamental pillar of the university mission. Training the right graduates for the needs of the labour market is another obvious way universities produce economic outcomes.

“The most important way that universities can contribute to economic development is by remaining in close touch with service industries, manufacturers and employers,” says Shamsh Kassim-Lakha, executive chair of the board executive committee of the University of Central Asia in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. “Because at the moment they are often producing graduates who are not fit for purpose.”

Kassim-Lakha cites the case of Central Asia, where he sees a big surplus of lawyers and specialists in international relations, but not enough teachers or engineers. The skills mismatch is to be found in many parts of the world.

Universities may also be failing to train people for new professions. Civil society organisations are springing up and taking a bigger role in both industrialised and developing countries where traditional forms of government may be failing to deliver.

However, most people running civil society organisations have not been trained to do so. “If you look at charitable organisations that run schools or take care of gender and children’s issues, are universities training people to manage them?” asks Kassim-Lakha. “Hardly ever and yet there are thousands of possible jobs out there.”

Gaining soft skills

Civic engagement may be part of the solution.

Participating in service learning programmes can broaden a student’s skill set but it can also make university education more relevant and help tackle the skills mismatch, according to Robert Hollister, executive director of the Talloires Network.

“Students who participate in well managed community service programmes are not only providing good service – not only teaching younger children or cleaning up the environment – but in the process they are learning by doing and gaining additional skills that make them more employable or better job creators,” he says.

“This is especially important in situations where there are not enough job opportunities.”

Member institutions of the Talloires Network testify that such students tend to be better at organising other people, at generating resources and at analysing “messy or complicated situations”, according to Hollister.

“What many employers criticise is that universities are not producing graduates with the skills they need, but this is one way of producing the kind of attitudes and soft skills they often find lacking,” he adds.

Promoting the economic benefits of service learning for students is not just about satisfying demand from employers, says Reeta Roy, president of the MasterCard Foundation.

“It is also responding to a new kind of student who expects their learning experience will include practical experience. It could be an internship or something else, but it is going beyond that because it is also solving a problem in the community,” she says.

Roy believes greater adaptability is a second benefit. “It’s very different from people who have learned in a traditional learning environment,” she says. “What is added on is practical experience which in turn adds to adaptability. They are learning to learn in a very practical and dynamic environment – a place we usually call the real world.”

Engagement activities by academics, including those which lead to economic development, often take place in an unstructured way, which may have as much to do with an individual’s sense of duty as with institutional directives.

“There are many in the university who do engage in activity in the community without charging for it,” says the University of Ghana’s Ernest Aryeetey.

They could come from a particular place, usually somewhere rural, and they may become a main spokesperson for that community, for instance they are the ones who go around looking for development opportunities.

Since a change in the statutes in 2010, the University of Ghana rewards these academics by awarding points for civic activity in performance reviews.

Different conditions but similar principles

So does this kind of civic engagement look different from one country to the next? Is there a typically European way of going about things as opposed to an African or a Latin American approach?

“With civic engagement activities, it is a critical that the activity be contextualised, so it is by definition going to look different as it will reflect the country or community where you are working,” says Sharon Bell, deputy vice-chancellor of Charles Darwin University in Darwin, Australia.

“But there are generic principles – those of commitment, longevity, mutual respect and two-way transfer and these are the same regardless of context.”

Citing the case of budding entrepreneurs, Central Asia’s Kassim-Lakha agrees that the basic approach is similar everywhere, but the resources available to graduates will be different.

“There will be more organisations supporting a graduate from Alberta in Canada than a graduate from Khorog [in Tajikistan] so universities need to find other organisations to help,” he says.

Dual systems matter

For John Goddard, emeritus professor of regional development studies at the University of Newcastle in the United Kingdom, rather than location, the key factor is the extent to which the higher education system is a dual system – “the newer universities for which engagement with society and business is their raison d’être as opposed to older universities, usually in big cities, whose emphasis is on research and getting up the league tables”.

Producing top quality research is a great thing in its own right but, according to Goddard, it is also a necessary ingredient for civic engagement for economic development.

“If you are going to be a force for improving conditions in your community, you need to be able to bring to the table something the others don’t have and that often comes from having someone who is excellent in their field,” he says.

Goddard sees signs that, due to pressure for public accountability, older universities, such as the UK’s University College London or other European universities such as Amsterdam, Tampere or Trinity College Dublin, are beginning to take the engagement agenda more seriously.

“These are traditional universities who, like sleeping giants, are waking up to the idea that they have to find a way to engage with society both locally and globally,” he says.

Benefits for the community

So universities, working in partnership with other kinds of actors, can produce economic benefits both for themselves and, more importantly, for the wider community through civic engagement activities.

Darwin’s Sharon Bell warns against getting carried away on a wave of enthusiasm for all things commercial, however. Staying focused on the prime mission of universities – building human capital – can help avoid this, she says.

“Universities are constantly facing difficult financial circumstances and questions of how to increase revenue can lead to mission drift, where you move into activities that are not the responsibility of universities,” she says.

Integrating responsibility for civic engagement and economic development within universities – making sure civic engagement is not only organised by student or academic affairs while economic development comes under a separate remit – is one way to avoid this.

“We as universities are in some ways diminished if our focus is only on the commercialisation or commodification of our educational products.

“One fundamental premise of most higher education systems in the world is that universities are institutions that operate on the basis of the public good. That doesn’t mean that we can’t produce economic and commercial outcomes but the key motivation is to act in the interest of the public good and the community,” says Bell.