What Is the Civic University For?

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Glasgow Caledonian University
This article originally appeared on Stanford Social Innovation Review

This series, a collaboration of Ashoka U and the Stanford Social Innovation Review, shares insights from leaders in higher education, presenting stories, strategies, and lessons in rewiring higher education’s purpose, relevance, and business models. 

As John Goddard has observed, “There are two key questions that each university should be able to answer. The first is: ‘what are we good at?’ And the second is ‘what are we good for?’”

All universities engage with the first question by attracting the best people and giving them the space to excel. But the second question is far more difficult, not only because the role of universities in society depends on shifting social contexts and political climate, but because of how difficult it is for universities to mobilize a broad and diverse set of academic interests around a single all-encompassing and forward-looking agenda.  

In February 2017, Glasgow Caledonian University (GCU) became the first university to adopt the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) as the guiding framework for our research strategy. As the “University for the Common Good”—the headline of our institution-wide Strategy 2020, devised in 2014—our leading researchers chose the SDGs as our guiding framework because they offer the most comprehensive statement of global needs ever produced, as well as a set of practical hooks on which to hang our actions in pursuit of the Common Good.

The global COVID-19 crisis has only underscored the importance of “fostering innovation to address social challenges,” as the OECD has put it, as well as engaging the civic role of the university in building a more sustainable and equitable society. Indeed, while we were already in the throes of refreshing our university strategy—looking forward to 2030—we have taken the pandemic as an opportune moment to pause and look back to where we have come from, what we have achieved in a relatively short period of time, and how robust this trajectory may be in light of the “new normal.”

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Ashoka insight

Imaginative ways of ranking universities, such as we have seen emerge recently, have started to favor universities such as ours that focus attention on societal impact. The recently announced Times Higher Education Impact Rankings for 2020 recognized GCU as 43rd in the world overall, and in the Top 20 in the world in three SDGs: SDG 5 Gender Equality (12th); SDG 8 Decent Work and Economic Growth (13th); and SDG 10 Reduced Inequalities (20th). Linked to such wider considerations, GCU’s accreditation as an AshokaU Changemaker Campus has brought us into a network of like-minded universities worldwide, committed to going beyond the curriculum to foster a university-wide culture of social innovation. Our research focus on SDGs has helped us to achieve rankings and recognition, but this, in turn, lends us credibility to be able to achieve more social impact through new educational programs, at home and internationally too.