Academic journal article Hemispheres

Higher Education and Society in Tunisia: Re-Thinking University and Students Social Responsibility

Academic journal article Hemispheres

Higher Education and Society in Tunisia: Re-Thinking University and Students Social Responsibility

Article excerpt

Universities social dimension: limitations and structural tensions

In the history of humanity, social values such as justice, public good, social cohesion, freedom, piety and tolerance formed norms and rules shaping the development of society. A process of recognition, dialogue and mutual responsibility has always been a prerequisite of living together, developing customs and behaviours as part of shared awareness and an understanding of ourselves as a 'human social being'. However, some central questions seem to suggest that a deeper reflection is required: what does social responsibility count for? Why do we value it? Furthermore, how is it created, promoted and implemented in society?

Universities, in particular, lie in a crucial position in terms of fostering public service in the pursuit of economic, cultural and social progress. They have been historically endowed with two central functions: teaching and formation for professions and researching or the advancement of knowledge. Furthermore, over the centuries, they have occupied a central role in society - adapting to the challenges of different contexts and times. They were "designed to provide higher educational services such as teaching, research, and a host of other academic services to the church, governments, individuals, public, and in the future, perhaps, the world".* 1 The interfaces and development of these different functions or services gave rise to struggles and tensions over contents and implementations as different social, economic and political powers claimed authority over them.

Nowadays, nation-states have increasingly become part of borderless interconnected global networks, dominated by neo-capitalist economic and techno-scientific development systems. Social norms, a sense of belonging and forms of civic engagement have been re-shaped and adapted to new environments and changing national contexts. The predominant ethos on economic growth and the relevance of financial markets has led to the endorsement of capitalistic values as well as consumerist and market-oriented principles. As such, central state welfare provision has progressively declined paving the way for increasing private social service procurement. In the early 90s, the Triple Helix model University-Government-Industry2 has been supported and advocated as a model to create partnerships for technology and scientific advancements to stimulate employment and economic growth. A new institutional, managerial, normative and organizational environment was developed, placing research and industry central to competitiveness and innovation. Universities were called upon to specifically serve a 'third mission' constructed around the advancement of the industrial sectors to improve innovation and advance knowledge for market competitiveness.

Despite this dominant trend, questions around the centrality of the market over other social and cultural advancements have raised some issues. In particular, the lack of the 'orphan' fourth-Helix model's development - the neglecting of University-Civil society relations in connection with industry and government - has largely undermined the inclusion of a third party civil society in university's activities for national or regional innovation policies.3 Market logics have thus fostered the prominence of a culture founded on the conception of infinite marketable goods. In such an ever expanding global environment, the concept of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) was developed and turned to imply a "voluntary commitment to behave ethically and contribute to economic development while improving the quality of life of the workforce, their families, the local community and society at large".4 The very idea of engaging with and contributing to the well-being of the external community in its broadest sense unfolded the centrality of a company's relations and implications towards society. CSR, while preserving market-oriented values, reconsiders businesses' social agency and responsibility based on moral and ethical grounds. …

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