Delivering impact for society

Matthew Lawson, Programme Manager Department for Social Responsibility and Sustainability at the University of Edinburgh talks about universities as champions of change.

Universities have traditionally been regarded as key institutions in processes of social change, explicitly in the creation and dissemination of academic research. As universities play an increasingly important role in modern society, it is important to reflect on the wider impact of universities and their communities.

More recently, discussions on the role of universities in society have gone further, including universities being centres of innovation and enterprise, contributors to social justice and mobility, champions of cultural diversity, providers of leaders and highly skilled graduates, as well as being key actors in Improving the needs of local and global communities.

The Benchmark Standards for University Social Responsibility across the European Higher Education Area (EHEA) were developed explicitly to understand how universities in the 21st century could act socially responsibly and address many of the key issues presented above[1].

Clearly, there are many opportunities for universities to positively impact on society, however in an ever-uncertain geo-political landscape and difficult economic climate, there are challenges for universities to overcome to truly make a transformative difference.

I work in the University of Edinburgh’s Department for Social Responsibility and Sustainability (SRS), and I am fortunate enough that my role allows me to critically engage with many of these issues around higher education’s contribution to society. Recently, I have been working with colleagues on the review of the University’s SRS Strategy 2010-20.

Since the launch of the strategy in 2010, there have been significant developments including the establishment of a dedicated department for SRS issues, foundation of the Global Academies promoting cross-disciplinary research, a new ambitious Climate Strategy, integration of sustainability into procurement and further opportunities for students to engage with SRS issues through their degree programmes.  

These achievements are to be welcomed, however the consensus among colleagues is that the University could further expand its contribution to Scotland, the UK and internationally. This could include opportunities to support social enterprises, develop close relationships with businesses to develop innovative solutions to global challenges, engage with suppliers to address the issues of conflict minerals and modern slavery, provide mechanisms for staff and students to actively contribute to the local community, and for the University to improve the social, environmental, economic and cultural needs of Edinburgh and its residents.

The intention is to publish a new revised strategy in 2018, adopting a whole institution approach, which will include research, learning and teaching and operations. This presents an exciting opportunity for the University to outline its sustainable and socially responsible impacts and wider contribution to society.

[1] The University of Edinburgh is a partner in the Erasmus + funded ‘European Students Sustainability Auditing’ project, which looks to further develop and apply these standards.
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