On 27th July 2016 Conexx-Europe interviewed Sabine Denis, Co-Executive Officer at The Shift, a Belgian platform and meeting point for companies, NGOs and other organisations interested in sustainable business models. The interview is part of the USR-NET: European Network of Socially Responsible Universities project and aims at collecting information and experiences from stakeholders and universities on the meaning of university social responsibility and what factors encourage or discourage the adoption of USR in universities..
What do you think about the current situation in Belgian universities; do you think that social responsibility is taken into account?
I think that the problem lies with the concept of Social Responsibility; it is too broad and blurry. In fact, it applies to too many fields and it is highly improbable that universities will be able to implement all the different aspects of social responsibility. A lot of universities are socially responsible under certain points of view, but I hardly believe that it would be possible for any organisation to implement social responsibility in all fields. Therefore, when you look at the whole picture, you realize that those specific efforts are almost irrelevant. Instead, the focus should be on sustainability and finding concrete solution to pressing problems such as climate change and raising inequality. In other words, universities should provide society with sustainable solutions to technical and socio-economic issues.
One of the objectives of the project is to promote a transversal approach to SR in universities, which means in the four main pillars: teaching, research, labour and environmental impact (responsible campuses) and social action. Do you think that this objective is achievable and have you got any specific recommendation?
I think this objective is too ambitious and therefore unattainable. As I said at the beginning, the main issues with SR is that is too broad and all-encompassing; the risk here is that one can claim to be socially responsible by implementing only one of the aspects of USR. If universities are presented with a big package of social responsibility actions and measures to take, they will choose to implement the easiest ones such as transparency, reporting and social projects (which are often already part of universities’ activities). Yet this will not produce any substantial change. Therefore, I would suggest that you focus on the first pillar: teaching. Indeed, including USR into academic curricula is the only way to make people aware of the issue. And that in turn spills over to the other pillars: socially responsible professors and students ask for a socially responsible management of their university and spread their socially responsible consciousness outside university. By changing the way teaching is done in universities, you can change the way universities work.
Finally, what are in your opinion the main barriers and incentives to promote USR?
The main barrier is surely the autonomy of the teaching body. Academics have great freedom when it comes to set up the modules they are teaching, so it would be difficult to impose a particular topic. Further, academics tend to specialise on certain topics and this makes teaching highly specialised and focused on specific aspects of a particular topic. Therefore, it is unlikely that a broad and transversal topic such as SR can be included in curricula with a high level of specialisation. In addition, students are too concerned with their problems to be sensitive of SR issues; therefore, a bottom-up approach is not viable.
On the other side, universities are dependent on public funding and making public funding conditional on including SR and sustainability in curricula is one of the solutions. University rankings are also sensitive topic for universities: at the moment, SR and sustainability are not of primarily importance when it comes to rate universities. However, if the rating system took into account sustainability and SR as important parameters, universities would soon take action and adjust their educational programmes and management policies.