Though not a strong feature of the original Bologna Joint Ministerial Declaration of the European Ministers of Education (1999) that created the European Higher Education Area (EHEA) the social dimension of higher education became a central issue in subsequent Declarations, which recognised the important influence higher education institutions (HEIs) exert on developing European society and defining and transmitting the values on which this is built.
UNESCO underlines the current importance of such a contribution: “At no time in human history was the welfare of nations so closely linked to the quality and outreach of their higher education systems and institutions” (World Conference on Higher Education Partners, June 2003). The Council of Europe emphasises public responsibility for higher education and the importance of higher education governance in developing and promoting the social dimension of higher education and its distinctive contribution to the values of modern, complex society. In short, in their different ways the relevant supra-national bodies all emphasise the social responsibilities of higher education.
Currently, most European universities seem sensitive to and aware of the importance of their “social dimension” to some degree or other and many are developing actions to make this a priority, not only in policy terms but also in daily practice. However, there is no effective framework that can support this process within the EHEA. The project reported on here was developed to fill this gap and to create a Community Reference Framework for University Social Responsibility across the EHEA.
The EU-USR project was thus conceived from the outset as making a major contribution to the development and promotion of the social dimension of the European Higher Education.
In pursuit of this, two complementary epistemological frameworks were utilized, informing the integrated series of the Project’s work packages. First, University Social Responsibility was treated as the focus of inquiry, with desk-research identifying and analyzing examples of interesting policy and practice in fifteen selected European countries and a series of interviews, focus groups and five benchmarking visits carried out. This work allowed us to develop an operational definition of University Social Responsibility (Work Package [WP] 2), a directory of examples of interesting current practice and a set of Benchmark Standards (WP 3). Together, these outputs provide a reference point for not only further research and analysis but also for the further development of University Social Responsibility policy and practice across the EHEA. In addition, for any university seeking to develop its approach to University Social Responsibility ab initio, a simple analytical tool has been developed (WP 4) that will help translate the outcomes from a gap analysis into the basis of an institutional strategic plan for University Social Responsibility.
However, this project also has a normative dimension. It proposes a Manifesto (WP 6) that reflects the ethical and social commitments underpinning the project and that is presented as a key means of securing support from a wide range of individuals, institutions and other bodies in order to help advance University Social Responsibility as a distinctive feature of the EHEA landscape in a systematic, sector-wide manner. The Manifesto is linked to proposals for developing this process by means of a virtual network (WP 5).