Various Ways to Serve Society

As discussed in the Introduction, the third mission of universities is not an easily and clearly definable task. Universities can and do serve society in multifarious ways. In the wide definition of the third mission, including all forms of societal interaction, used, for example, in Swedish and Finnish university legislation, the possible interaction measures are innumerable. The discussion concerning indicators for measuring third mission activities of universities in the following section illustrates this very well.

The educational task of universities obviously profoundly affects the well-being of the societies in which they are located. The interaction between universities and the labor market is important with regard to the quality and impact of the educational task. The needs of the labor market are explored in various ways and used in decision-making in the quality frameworks of universities, and often beyond in external accreditation requirements, as is the case in Germany, Italy, and the Netherlands. In a well-functioning curriculum, the students are connected to the labor market through internships and by other means. The role of serving the labor market could be, and occasionally is, seen as an element of the third mission, but it should also be understood to be an integral part of a qualitatively well-developed educational task as such. The first mission is education for employment.

More obvious elements of a particular third mission approach in relation to education are reflected in the understanding that universities should serve their surrounding societies by means of activities that are likely to instill in students a sense of responsibility for the impact of their actions on these societies and on mankind in general. An operationally feasible option in this regard might be, for example, to discuss how to involve students of all departments in community activities as part of the curriculum. This kind of educational mission seems to be emphasized in the IECHE 2013 approach. Again, this could be viewed as an integral element of a qualitatively well-developed educational task.

When discussing the educational task, some reflect primarily on education leading to an academic degree. A possible responsibility for organizing life-long learning would then be seen as a part of the third mission. In universities and university systems in which continuing education is to a considerable extent administered in separate institutes, this often seems natural. In many university strategies this issue is dealt with as a part of the social responsibility of universities. Be it as it may, the importance of life-long learning in the knowledge society has been assigned a highly visible profile on the agenda in numerous countries as well as in the EU, and universities cannot ignore this.

The societal impact of the research task is equally obvious. The concept linking research and society is innovation. As previously mentioned, I will not analyze this issue further, as it is dealt with in a separate chapter.

However, as the fostering of student responsibility for contributing to the good of society has been emphasized as an important element of the third mission, I cannot refrain from mentioning the innovative capacity of students in this context. If favorable conditions and useful platforms for student innovation activities are created, the new ideas of students, not bound by entrenched thinking traditions, might prove very useful for society. Both student start-ups and the broader innovative activities of students are often based on strong value-commitments.

More generally, universities carry a societal responsibility for the socio-economic environment in which they operate, not only via research and education, but also by means of other activities. Also, by playing active roles themselves, universities are capable of promoting sustainable, equal, democratic, culturally and economically advanced societies.

A traditional way of serving society to achieve such ends is by participation in the public discourse. The outreach of universities is performed by universities and their researchers in both traditional media and increasingly via social media. University communication departments and media centers have become increasingly important, as there is a growing insight that universities and researchers are expected to share their knowledge in the public discourse arena.

Direct communication to the public through public lectures and seminars is a part of an active communication strategy. The academic interest of children may be supported and encouraged by informative visits to schools and by the reception of school classes on campus. In order to obtain good results, this can be implemented in an organized fashion. As a pertinent example I can mention the LUMA Centre of the University of Helsinki, which is “an umbrella organization for the collaboration of schools, university and business sector, with the aim to promote and support life-long learning, studying and teaching of STEM[1] subjects on all levels of education” [6].

In addition to their presentation to the general public, knowledge produced at universities and university expertise are, and should be, used in public and private decision-making processes. In fact, in many countries, the most important influence of researchers often occurs through participation in expert committees, public hearings, law drafting processes, and other decision-making procedures. Universities can make strategic decisions to emphasize such tasks as particular contributions to the third mission. For example, the Australian National University has designated supporting and shaping public policy in its country as its means of engagement with the community, and it has established an institute for that purpose [7].

As universities are often important regional players, their social responsibility has a regional aspect, the relative nature of which varies depending on the location and profile of the individual universities. Regional responsibility implies yet another set of stakeholders to interact with. Both local authorities and local businesses may play very important roles and be partners in universities' societal interactions.

As value-leaders, universities may also, by their own performance and example, support the values they seek to promote in society. A university that preaches, for example, environmental awareness, is not very convincing if such awareness is lacking in its own activities as an organization. Just to mention an example, it was for this reason a natural step for my own university, the University of Helsinki, to join the WWF Green Office scheme, and sign on to its responsibilities under this scheme. In the US, the American College and University Presidents' Climate Commitment (2006) has gained considerable visibility in the discussions concerning how to address climate change [8].

Universities fulfill their third mission through a complex set of activities, differing in scope and content. Such activities can be weighted and combined in many beneficial ways. There is no blueprint for the best way to perform the third mission. It all depends on the environment of the concerned universities, on the structure and disciplines of the universities themselves and, of course, on their values.

The needs of the surrounding societies affect the social demand for university interaction. For example, when the University of Nairobi, with the display of huge signs on campus, announces the campus to be a corruption-free zone, it is a powerful political statement intended to affect society. In some other country, perhaps less plagued by corruption, other issues may seem more urgently in need of addressing, perhaps by other means. In some environments, universities are called to fight for democracy and human rights, while in others this need is felt to be less pressing, at least with regard to the home ground.

The disciplines of universities have an impact on how universities interact with society in their daily activities. Professors of, for example, law and medicine are almost routinely involved in tasks falling within the definition of the third mission, be it through consultation, expert opinions, or in other ways. Also the treatment of patients in university hospitals is usually understood as community service. Climate research has a different impact agenda and stakeholders than do some fields of social sciences and humanities. In some areas of basic science, identifying the natural point of contact with society may require more creative thinking and decision-making.

In good universities, one therefore always encounters a great variety of third mission activities, as should certainly be the case. Universities should promote and offer incentives for such activities. The difficult question of how to measure and incentivize third mission activities is discussed in the next section of the chapter.

Universities that seek to appear as excellent in serving society and mankind cannot, however, be content with merely general promotion of the third mission. They have to proceed further toward more strategic enhancement of the area. Designing and constructing strategies in this area requires choice of the most important third mission activities of universities and their place in universities' branding. This of course is closely connected with the definition of universities' values. I will return to the strategic issues in a later section of the chapter.

  • [1] STEM is an acronym referring to the academic disciplines of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.
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