Why universities need a renewed focus on their third mission

Universities have traditionally been seen as autonomous structures with respect to political power and as seats of democratic citizenship that serve their cities and their region or country and the public interest in a broad sense, as institutions that increase and transmit the body of knowledge and spur invention.

The Magna Charta Universitatum and the subsequent Campus Engage Civic and Community Engagement Charter have recently unequivocally sanctioned these fundamental and indispensable aspects of academic institutions. Both of these documents are continuously monitored and updated to respond to the challenges of a particular age.

However, if the prestige accumulated over the centuries by individual university institutions, both public and private, was due – in whole or in part – to their ability to serve society, their ‘territory of influence’ has been understood in very flexible terms, extending from metropolitan areas to regions, to country level, up to and including in some cases a continent or the entire planet.

Indeed, all universities, despite their differences, share an international dimension as a common factor, in the sense that they are capable of putting students and faculty in permanent connection with other cultures, other countries and other realities. All of them also have a vocation to guide innovation and the economic and cultural development of the region in which they operate, taking the best from the experiences of ‘neighbouring’ territories.

The crisis that universities are experiencing today has many causes and has led in part to a concomitant crisis when it comes to trust in science. The recent pandemic has highlighted the heavy inertia of many university systems and their unwillingness to revisit their original mission.

Only a few prestigious institutions have been able to react promptly and directly to the challenges posed by the health crisis, managing to serve the community even in difficult conditions, for instance by giving them clear and unambiguous information that is useful for understanding the phenomenon and assessing what behaviour is best for the individual and the community. For example, Harvard Medical School's Trends in Medicine or the CIDRAP activity of the University of Minnesota.

Most, while making their own experts available on an individual level, have preferred to focus their institutional activities on the best way to respond to the education emergency, but also and above all on how to return to ‘business as usual’.

The speed with which most (though not all) universities are returning to face-to-face teaching, without an evaluation of the positive aspects of distance learning and its implications, is in fact exemplary of the priority they have given to recovery.

The focus has been on non-resident students (both national and international) and lost funds for teaching and research (the shortage of which has, unfortunately, resulted in the loss of thousands of jobs) rather than on activities aimed at innovation with implicit advantages for the wider community.

However, many international organisations or networks have taken advantage of the state of paralysis of the system to define strategies of great social value in order to prepare for a possible economic, and therefore social, crisis in the coming months or years. In this regard we are thinking of the University Without Walls study of the European University Association, of the activities of the ALLEA – All European Academies – or of The Enhanced Role of Scientists as Social Actors of the European Research Council.

It is urgent that all universities understand that they must resume their central role in helping solve old and new problems and revisit their local mission in light of the health and oncoming social crisis.

It is no coincidence that there is an emphasis on institutions contributing to growth, not only in terms of employment and economic resources. One historical example is the contribution of the Olivetti company, in the 1960s and 1970s, to the development of the province of Ivrea in Piedmont.

For universities, one of the most important tools lies in a rebalancing of their third mission activities in favour of the kind of social commitment that has often been set aside in favour of the ‘technology transfer’ role, effectively limiting the mission of universities to the sole acquisition of ‘skills’, mainly in the fields of the STEM disciplines.

Today this is no longer sustainable: attention to social equity and a new broader interpretation of the concept of the circular economy and sustainable development can no longer be ignored.

That includes having a deep, widespread and contextualised knowledge of local, regional or national issues, their social and cultural aspects and economic imbalances and inequality, through a structured dialogue with community groups, involving students, individual teachers and staff units in a learning community dedicated to social growth, the development of democratic principles and constant regulatory and strategy review.

More than technological knowledge

Is it not impossible to talk about entrepreneurial activities, the development of new technologies, technology transfer and its impact on society without drawing on community values, norms and awareness and historical factors? Surely doing so is important not just for society, but also for scientists in a particular field? They are enriched by studies outside their own which embed them in society.

Third mission activities will also become fundamental if they are central to the consolidation of democratic and active citizenship through education of the whole community, including marginalised groups.

For example, the University of Pennsylvania is involved in a community project in West Philadelphia where students and faculty work in one of the most disadvantaged communities in the state to give hope, purpose and job opportunities to the citizens who live there.

Beyond the social elites

Another issue concerns how new knowledge can be produced if it does not have any immediate commercial application that will attract investment from private industry.

Universities can and must contribute to linking basic research that can play a strategic role in social development to applied research through their third mission and technology transfer activities. Basic science cannot be sacrificed for the benefit of applied science.

For all this to happen, higher education institutions must go beyond working with the cultural, entrepreneurial and political elites in their countries and regions.

While it is certainly necessary to continue to pursue technology transfer with private sector partners, universities will only be seen as vital, reliable and disinterested parties if they are able to put their own experts and their expertise – as Katherine Hawley, professor of philosophy at the University of St Andrews, put it: "Their skills, abilities, knowledge and intellectual honesty" – at the disposal of the community as a whole, including the most marginalised, from social partners to businesses, from local authorities to cultural centres and so on.

In short, the role of universities is fundamental not only to producing knowledge and professional skills, but also to moulding an informed, critical, democratically and civilly evolved society that can welcome and contribute to economic and social development. Advanced technology in a society that is culturally and civically backward can only lead to barbarism.

Local responsibility and democracy

For this to happen, however, others must overcome the idea that universities are mainly in the service of economic policies aimed exclusively at sectors that are economically already mature, producing applicable technological solutions. The risk of deep global economic crises should in fact make everyone aware that development requires everyone's contribution – no one should be left behind.

Universities are the ideal forum for the development and conservation of European nations’ founding principles of democratic rules and respect for the law. For this purpose, a widespread university network is needed, which does not focus exclusively on a few pockets of excellence in research fields that attract high capital investment and have advanced and expensive laboratories and instruments.

It is therefore logical that everyone plays a part in evaluating the role universities play with regard to their local responsibility, in the awareness that this process cannot be separated from a common ethical basis, which cannot be derived from subjects such as microelectronics.

At the basis of this work there is a common belief that it is not enough to ‘be reliable’ in protecting society’s interests: one must above all ‘be perceived as being reliable’ and it is necessary to be perceived also as being ‘detached from political interests’, ‘attentive to community problems’ and ‘democratic’. The social perception of the role of universities is fundamental for a collective sense of trust and this trust must be reciprocal.

Teaching activities related to the third mission, unlike the usual university curriculum, are characterised by the possibility of rapid evolution as they are endowed with considerable flexibility and dynamism. They can adapt to new professions and to local needs and can help to identify and address the weaknesses and the most urgent shortcomings.

But in order for this dynamism and flexibility to be fully articulated, universities need to come up with training and training courses that are suitable for this purpose as opposed to teaching basic scientific knowledge.

What third mission activities should universities focus on?

First of all, they should focus on activities that facilitate the rapid conversion of obsolete qualifications into those that benefit innovative sectors, for instance, new professions, STEM professions and professions related to the development of AI; quality assurance skills, and lifelong learning and continuing professional development.

For example, health sector workers have been retrained as vaccine administrators, and the retraining of people in environmental and nutritional problems or in emerging sectors such as niche tourism.

Third mission activities can also make it possible to highlight and solve skills shortages in various sectors by providing innovative remedies that take into account the latest technological developments, thus offering local companies the opportunity to optimise their workforce and consequently increase their competitive capacity.

The common factor of third mission activities is that they are capable of combining education, basic research and advanced, continuous professional training, upgrading and upskilling of adults (whether active, inactive or looking for new jobs) with active citizenship and democratic policies where the local and the global interact equally.

They are able to guide citizens to make optimal legislative political choices and are also capable of developing support and financing policies aimed at emerging professions.

To make third mission activities feasible and scalable, it is necessary to develop tools and procedures that put into practice ‘transparent’ training courses through micro-credentials, including new quality assurance policies that are based on environmental or other social needs rather than being inspired by an abstract idea of quality.

Universities do not necessarily have to guide the process, but rather act as carriers of innovative methods capable of affecting the speed of growth of companies operating in their area and stimulating the formation of new innovative entrepreneurial realities. As such, universities must contribute to the definition of a new regulatory and legislative framework.

For some decades, there has been increasing interest in the local mission of universities and this deserves to be reflected in quality assurance parameters. In many countries, the need to develop strategies to facilitate the development of practices capable of reducing inequalities and imbalances in the speed of development of different regions and identifying the root causes of these, is already central to the definition of policies for higher education and to developing targeted regulatory and/or legislative solutions.

If wider social needs regain centrality in the strategic actions of universities, they can be concerned with more than the formation of the future ruling class, for instance, the definition and implementation of sustainable policies, citizens’ inclusion in active democratic preparation, the development of their skills, the provision of a venue for democratic debate and the offering of flexible training tailored to the particular needs of small communities.

In conclusion, universities’ third missions can and must become a decisive tool capable of making local responsibility, in addition to institutions’ statutory activities, central to the strategies of all parts of society, from companies to local and national government and to social enterprises and schools.

Giuseppe Ronsisvalle is adjunct professor of pharmaceutical chemistry at the University of Catania in Italy. Francesco Coniglione is professor of history of philosophy at the University of Catania and Dr Simone Ronsisvalle is a pharmaceutical chemistry researcher at the University of Catania.