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Societal Commitment and Social Responsibility


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There has been much discussion over the issue of societal commitment to higher education – from questions of public financing, to the role of the private sector or civil society, to the importance of international cooperation for the transfer of knowledge across borders.  In contrast, there has been much less discussion around the social responsibility of public institutions, such as Universities and other institutions of higher education, and this social responsibility deserves, more than ever, deeper reflection both on its nature and scope. 

The recent economic crisis has highlighted societal commitment to education, underscored by the decision of some of the leading economic powers to spend massively on education as a sound investment for economic recovery and growth.  But it has also highlighted the fact that society has endowed its educational institutions with greater social responsibilities than ever before, and the expectations are high: we now look to education not just to educate our children and youth, but to bring us out of poverty and set us on the path to peace and sustainable development.  Can our institutions of higher education carry through on their growing responsibilities in the domain of socio-economic development?  What is the reasonable extent of higher education’s social responsibilities, and how can we ensure that all countries, both in the North and South, are able to fulfill them?  Will fulfilling these responsibilities require a radical re-shaping of the dominant higher educational system and philosophy?

What is certain is that the University can no longer be seen uniquely as an institution for personal development – in today’s globalized era, personal intellectual advancement must go hand in hand with broader goals of sustainable development, poverty reduction, peace and human rights.  In a time of environmental and economic crisis, why and how should universities and institutions of higher education be increasingly instrumental in order to impact social and economic development? Beyond they preparatory role of producing the leaders of tomorrow and instilling in them the values and knowledge necessary to building a more sustainable future, some go even further to argue that it is also the social responsibility of institutions of higher education to take on an anticipatory role – to serve as “observatories and think tanks" in order to foresee and alert society to emerging trends and, ideally, to help prevent major crises before they happen.  Finally, it is with our institutions of higher education that the responsibility falls to oversee development and innovation in new technologies. These technologies may hold the answer to some of the world’s current global challenges, but this will require that students are equipped with the appropriate ethical and entrepreneurial skills.

In light of these and other emerging issues in higher education, Plenary Session III and its subsequent parallel thematic Round Tables will seek to investigate and develop three different areas among higher education’s social responsibilities: the promotion of sustainable development, including through new and emerging technologies; the achievement of the Millennium Development Goals, with a focus on poverty reduction; and the promotion of entrepreneurship for job creation and social progress.