Excellence in Serving Society and Mankind

Thomas Wilhelmsson


The third mission of universities, serving society, has received much attention in international debate on university policy. It is increasingly presented as one of the key tasks of universities, in addition to their traditional tasks of research and teaching.

Universities can serve society in multifarious ways, while at the same time performing the basic tasks of research and teaching for the benefit of society. It is therefore not surprising that both the definitions of the issue and the terminology vary greatly between individuals and countries. In this chapter, both the terminology including 'third mission', plus expressions such as 'social responsibility', 'community engagement', 'community services', 'outreach', and 'societal interaction', are discussed and analyzed, as are the various means and methods by which society can be served.

The reasons for the increasing importance of the third mission vary. For some it stems from the insight that education and research have a direct role in the globalized knowledge society and profoundly influence its competitive strength. Others stress the indirect function of universities as hubs of creativity, attracting and supporting talent for the benefit of society. The pursuit of the third mission is not, however, purely 'altruistic'. A well-functioning interaction with society enhances the quality of both university teaching and research.

It is therefore difficult to classify universities that are underperforming in terms of effort and focus in this regard as being world-class universities. This chapter's discussion focuses on the means of enhancing societal interaction qualitatively and quantitatively. What can and should universities do, in order to achieve excellence in serving society and mankind?

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