The rise of social responsibility in higher education

Corporate social responsibility has been a fixture in the business world for decades, and has become embedded in many universities as higher education leaders seek alternative ways to achieve sustainability.

The purpose of corporate social responsibility or CSR is to guide organisations to act “in an ethical and transparent way that contributes to the health and welfare of society”, according to ISO business standards.

Some universities refer to themselves as ‘engaged’ institutions involved in civil and community service or ‘outreach’, such as members of the global Talloires Network of 363 universities in 77 countries.

More and more universities around the world are integrating social responsibility into their mission statements, including their research and teaching missions, arguing that higher education is better off when it gives back to the society that is responsible for funding it.

“If you go to university you’ll live longer, you’ll earn a higher salary, you’ll be more influential in life and your children will have a better life,” said Craig Mahoney, vice-chancellor of the University of the West of Scotland in the United Kingdom.

“It seems to me that having a socially responsible institution is actually common sense.”

Mahoney and other university leaders discussed incorporating CSR into the framework of higher education during a session headlined “Social responsibility – Embedding the third pillar” at the Association of Commonwealth Universities or ACU Conference of University Leaders 2016, held in Ghana’s capital Accra from 27-29 July.


During his presentation, Mahoney said that universities “cannot be sustainable without being socially responsible”, especially in terms of procuring adequate funding and making higher education accessible to students of all socio-economic backgrounds.

In addition to issuing a social responsibility statement that defines its approach to CSR, the University of the West of Scotland says it actively encourages community engagement and relies on partnering with local and international organisations to maximise its impact on society.

The university, for example, is currently working with the local government to re-energise the city of Paisley, a once booming but now rundown metropolis vying for the UK City of Culture title in 2021. Mahoney is a member of the Paisley 2021 Partnership Board with other community leaders to help the city earn the bid.

The university works with several local primary and secondary schools to engage with children who come from backgrounds that don’t traditionally prioritise tertiary education and help them understand the benefits of higher learning. It also has partnerships with other universities, businesses and even local hospices.

More than charity

Serving the community is a critical component of a socially responsible institution but Christie Lee, director of student-community engagement at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, says universities should not let the pursuit of CSR policy misguide them about their foundational purpose.

“Our role is to educate,” Lee said. “We are not an aid or charity organisation, but we do provide opportunities, networks and partnerships.”

In June, Singapore’s Acting Minister for Education Ong Ye Kung made similar comments while urging the country’s universities to embrace social responsibility during a speech at Singapore Management University.

Institutions of higher learning “imbue in our young the spirit to work together, give back to our community and society, and realise the differences they can make as a generation”, he said.

It should be recognised that although higher education institutions are global centres of learning, institutions in Singapore “must have a distinct identity, one that speaks to its social and public mission located within a specific and particular national context”.

Nanyang Technological University is proof of the minister’s declaration. It has nearly 40 overseas community projects that involve roughly 750 students every year, according to Lee.

One programme called Campus Outreach trains students in sign language and partners them with hearing-impaired youth to boost their confidence and aspirations. The university also participates in several international youth competitions, including the Enactus World Cup and Shell Ideas360, which focus on entrepreneurship and innovation.

Shaping CSR for the local community

Although much of the work socially responsible universities do is in partnership with local charities, Paul Boyle, vice-chancellor of the University of Leicester in the UK, says universities “need to go the next step by asking ‘what does [our] community really need?’”

One of the ways Boyle’s university answers this question is through an initiative called ‘Upskilling for the 21st Century’, which facilitates partnerships with local schools, charities and businesses to support the roughly 70% of local small and medium-sized enterprises facing a deficit in qualified workers.

The university realised that a skills shortage in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics sectors would ultimately inhibit economic growth in its community. Therefore, it is in the university’s interest to try to prevent it.

This strategy is part four of Leicester’s five-point action-plan called PROUD, an acronym that outlines key areas the university plans to focus on to achieve a sustained social role in the community. It stands for promoting health and well-being, restoring the environment, opening access to culture and heritage, upskilling for the 21st century, and developing children and young people.

Boyle said the university came up with the initiative by consulting city planners and strategies to determine how best it could fit into the local community’s future.

Some concerns

How do universities know which CSR measures to adopt? Who sets the agenda for social responsibility? How is it funded and executed?

These are some of the questions Robert Campbell, president and vice-chancellor of Mount Allison University in Canada, posed during a discussion at the ACU conference on the topic.

Campbell said that in the past “there was no control” over a university’s social responsibility. Students never needed extra guidance because once they received a solid education, they were then able to go on and become active change makers in society.

University leaders like Campbell believe that the higher education experience will inevitably equip students to solve society’s problems. It is when the forced nature of CSR policy and rigid programming structures begin to compromise the traditional process of educating students that university leaders start to worry.

But if universities don’t pursue a common sense approach to CSR, Mahoney from the University of the West of Scotland says, it will be forced upon them sooner or later.

“We need to be more creative and think more efficiently,” Mahoney said. “If we’re not socially responsible, then there is no future for our universities.”