The Third University Mission – Reinterpreting the social impact of universities

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By Leonor Adán A. • Director of Public Engagement, Universidad Austral de Chile

During 2018, Latin American universities commemorated the centenary of the so-called Córdoba Reform, the founder of the processes of university autonomy and the key role of what was once known as ‘university extension’, defined as an inherent function of higher education institutions (Tünnermann 1998). This historical milestone coincided with a moment of conceptual elaboration within the framework of quality assurance processes and practices, which seeks to redefine policies and strategies of public engagement, challenging the effective commitment of our institutions to development and social welfare. The founding visions of the early 20th century were amalgamated with proposals that understood education as an exercise in liberation, and questioned the condescending view of unidirectional extension – the elitist and illuminating role of universities and their academic bodies – endorsing critical and dialogical approaches (Freire 1971).

The university reform processes in Chile during the late 1960s also breathed development projects, which in the academic field were well captured in the productive triangle raised by Argentine thinkers Jorge Sábato and Natalio Botana (1968). To a large extent these texts have been rediscovered, in the light of the readings of the globally known proposals of Eskowitz and Leydersdorff on the triple helix and the notions about the “society of knowledge” (1995, 2000). Concepts and approaches from campus and social engagement models, university social responsibility, learning+service, among others, have come to enrich and problematise university management and practice in this field (Crosson 183, Boyer 1996, Roper & Hirth 2005, Weerts 2007, Vallaeys 2014).

Redefining the field of university engagement

Undoubtedly, defining the scope and conceptual framework that supports the management of university engagement is a fundamental and complex task. Until a while ago it was common to identify certain naturalisation and laziness when seeking conceptual precision and a framework for action, understanding it as a “given” function that did not merit further reflection (Cf. Adán et al., 2016). How to generate a shared vision that prioritises and identify strategies? How to incorporate more actively the opinions and agency of our strategic partners in the development of the university project? How to beneficially integrate the functions of teaching, research, and engagement by strengthening the sustainability of the territories? These were the questions that guided the reflection of our corporation, betting on the incorporation of knowledge and critical reflection into our own processes and contributions.

For the Universidad Austral de Chile, this process was addressed in accordance with our mission and corporate values, strategic plans, and processes to ensure institutional quality. Guidelines of global scope established by UNESCO (2009) and the OECD (2007), which emphasised the role of knowledge in the global society and its problems, were also taken into account, as well as national and regional policies and strategies of science, culture, and territorial development, among others. Our ‘model’ appealed to the definition of a simple, encompassing and flexible framework, given the changing nature of the environment and the university dynamics. The work of our faculties, venues, and campuses as well as some specialised units, together with the firm purpose of being able to evaluate our social contribution, size impacts and correct paths were key in the development of the proposal.

With this background, the first question was to define a framework that placed the University ‘in’ society and not as an external entity that relates ‘to’ society. Although it seems to be a semantic subtlety, it is not, in the sense that many approaches in this logic re-edit the illuminist or ‘ivory tower’ conception of universities, over sizing the role of our institutions; encouraging again, hegemonic approaches that reproduce social inequities. Second, we address the scopes or strategies through which we develop engaging practices. In accordance with our tradition, the areas of knowledge covered by our university, society, and Southern Chile, from which we participate and project ourselves, it is possible to identify the following areas: Artistic, Cultural and Scientific Extension; Transfer of Knowledge and Technologies; Innovation and Entrepreneurship; and Continuing Education. At the same time, we recognised priority areas of impact, understood as spaces of interaction with a high relational potential (Von Baer 2009), in which the social problems and challenges are found in our disciplinary fields and institutional values. The areas of Health, Socioeconomic Development, Education, Artistic and Cultural Identity, Public Issues and the Environment and Sustainability have consequently been subject to systematic and permanent actions, prioritisation and monitoring, articulating the areas or strategies that we have defined.

Guiding principles, opportunities, and good practice

The key principle of the implemented model defines the practice of public engagement as a transversal function that is integrated into the work of teaching and research. This perspective of integrality of university work, which seems an obvious statement, constitutes a major challenge and an opportunity for institutional strengthening. In fact, the educational model of the Universidad Austral de Chile seeks to develop a set of stamp competencies, among which are social responsibility, critical reflection and commitment to sustainability and social equity. The training proposals that articulate permanent activities of connection with the environment, achieve a positive impact on students, developing competencies and skills demanded by their future work contexts. Likewise, research programs oriented to problems and opportunities of the communities and southern territories, have developed significant contributions of global impact in fields such as high-latitude ecosystems, sustainable rural development, aquaculture, identity and cultural heritage, and creative economy, among others.

Academic commitment is undoubtedly a key aspect for the performance of this third mission since faulty are those who, as part of their academic career, participate and are linked to the social problems defined in the areas of impact. It is also their formative work that allows the strengthening of the seal competences in the students. In this context, it is a major challenge for engagement actions to be correctly recognised in academic careers, identifying their impact and quality through assessment strategies that identify outstanding performance as it occurs in both teaching and research functions.

The feedback and active participation of the external community in strategic and policy definitions result in another of the key elements to achieve a relevant and effective link. In this regard, the effort has been directed to establishing permanent mechanisms that take shape in consultations and reports, standing out among them the Sustainability Report that the University carries out year after year, following the international criteria established in the GRI Standard. Several faculties have been working in the creation of External Advisory Councils that critically accompany the academic work, incorporating valuable contributions to the undergraduate and postgraduate teaching programs, as well as for the definition of the lines of research and engagement. The permanent Alumni program allows us to keep our graduates interested and committed to their University, while also informing us of their assessments of educational ecosystems, information on employability, as well as providing an updated look at work and professional environments.

This responsibility to report and communicate the results is not possible without a defined strategy for monitoring the impact and follow-up indicators. For this purpose, we have developed the Matrix IIAR Indicators of Integrality, Activity, and Results. The construction of this instrument involved the review of diverse data such as those of the E3M project, European Indicators and Ranking Methodology for University Third Mission, the approximation of the Russell Group Universities or The Higher Community Engagement Model, the AUSJAL System (Association of Universities entrusted to the Company of Jesus in Latin America) of Evaluation of the University Responsibility, and the Manual of Valencia for the connection with the socioeconomic environment, among others. All of this within the national context of the new Higher Education Law enacted in 2018 that establishes public engagement as one of the mandatory functions to document in the processes of self-evaluation and quality assurance.

Social contribution and active territories

From Southern Latin America, the Universidad Austral de Chile is developing a located project aimed at causing a beneficial impact, not only on the national and regional context but also on the global environment in which we participate. In the Austral South, culturally and environmentally diverse, full as much opportunities as risks, we participate in active territories mobilised by different agencies.

The social contribution of the University can be seen in the different areas of impact that we have prioritised that can only be exemplified in some cases. Many of these contributions are the result of long-term processes that characterise regional social, economic and cultural identities. In the field of Environment and Sustainability, the university work has contributed to the knowledge and conservation of temperate rainforest ecosystems of the southern Latin American cone. Our campuses are located in green areas and, like other reserves and parks they are available for recreation, education, and research. The areas of collaboration and innovation in health have allowed an extensive university contribution in terms of primary care, family and intercultural health, and applied research that renews the university commitment to the general welfare of the population and focuses on vulnerable groups.

In the field of Art and Culture, the university has positioned Valdivia as a space of international relevance in cinema and contemporary visual arts, both present at the International Film Festival of Valdivia and the Museum of Art Contemporary; also, next to be unveiled is the Urban Park that recovers patrimony of the industrialisation processes that took place at the end of the 19th century. The artistic creation of our academics, a process comparable to scientific research in our institutionality, reinforces a project that aims to strengthen creative environments and austral urban projects. In the field of education, a set of programs have been aimed at reducing gaps in the access to university generated in a context of social and economic inequality that characterises the country. Inclusive access is part of our institutional commitments, in addition to international guidelines that consider education as a democratic and social mobilisation space.

The socioeconomic area is approached from different centers and faculties, and some of the latter founded the university by strengthening the regional agricultural development. Entrepreneurship and innovation programs and projects foster productive development by accompanying private and public initiatives that create the economic basis of regional development. Issues of public interest, such as integrated urban development and decentralised national development, are privileged subjects of academic bodies and specialised programs that interact and actively participate in local and national agendas.

Third university mission: a practice in movement

The journey from the classic idea of university extension at the beginning of the 20th century to the current understanding of public engagement as a fundamental core of the educational projects of higher education institutions points out the privileged role of this university function for participating in social and political transformations. The notion of bidirectional interaction, which emphasises the relevance of reciprocity and mutual benefit, has given way to the idea of a network, in which the academic exercise has a fundamental role to play. Surely, it will soon be the image of the meshwork that will best reflect the possibilities and scope of university work ‘in’ society.

Although this diversity of approaches is seen for some as a weakness of the field, it significantly expresses its richness and potential. To strengthen the area and in turn, the social environments that create and host universities must be a matter of priority for the academic exercise, one that is based on creative, innovative and committed practices.

Leonor Adán A. is an archaeologist and PhD in History with a specialisation in Ethnohistory. Since 2014 she has been the Director of Public Engagement at the Universidad Austral de Chile, in charge of promoting the systematisation and assessment of the area as well as the active public engagement at regional and national levels. During 2015 she led one of the first national studies on the subject in the framework of the Annual Research Contest of the National Accreditation Commission. Previously, she had been since 1997 Director of the Department of Museology and Heritage. Since 1995 she has directed several FONDECYT-CONICYT research projects in the field of Archaeology, Anthropology, and Ethnohistory, with results in national and international publications. She is an active partner of the Chilean Society of Archaeology, the International Council of Museums (ICOM), and the Network of Regional Heritage Educators.