This is an area of great interest to us in Galway and something I've commented on in previous blogs: the whole aspect of the relationship between academia and wider civil society. Indeed, in the UK's Dearing Report (1), the possibility that we could think of universities as having a potential role as the "critic and conscience of society" was raised. As Ron Barnett has pointed out, however, this particular comment has received fairly little consideration in all the coverage and subsequent discussion of the report.
Here we've been exploring the issue of "service learning," which is particularly popular in the US (2), and translating it into the Irish and European context. In service learning, students work with non-profit, community organisations as part of their courses and are awarded academic credit for the learning that takes place (usually demonstrated through reflective reports, essays, presentations, etc).
We've also been looking at the more basic issue of encouraging students to participate in voluntary work whilst they are based at university and acknowledge such efforts through the award of certificates (3). Today we had an interesting example which was picked up in the national media (broadcast on the main evening news programmes in English and Irish) where medical students organised a "teddy bear hospital" for young children to help overcome the anxieties they can feel when going to hospital or meeting with doctors. Over 300 children (and bears!) participated.
In the adult world, we also have examples whereby academic staff (in a concerted and coordinated way) have participated in wider "political" debate such as the campaign that is currently being waged by archaeologists against the potential destruction of the one of the country's most important archaeological landscapes, the Hill of Tara through the current plans to develop a major highway in the vicinity (4).
These are just a few small examples, but they are illustrative of the wider potential for those of us in university to engage with the society we are in and model, even in a small way, the Dearing committee's aspiration.
(1) National Committee of Inquiry into Higher Education, "Dearing Report", 1997 http://www.leeds.ac.uk/educol/ncihe/
(2) Campus Compact, http://www.compact.org