Universities: A social duty

President, Sciences Po, Paris

©André Faber

Besides providing training, research, documentation, publishing, and the like, do universities have any particular responsibility towards society? And more to the point, do they have a role to play in the development of education systems? The answer is a resounding “yes”.

Last February, some 20 universities, brought together in a task force created by the UN secretary-general, met in Princeton to examine the way in which universities might respond in a new and innovative way to the intellectual, scientific, political and economic changes taking place in our societies. One issue at the fore of these discussions was the social responsibility of universities.

Obviously, research results and expertise must be made available to society as a whole. At the same time, however, universities can and must take direct action in their own field, namely education. They can do this by allowing others to benefit from their research, for example, into inequalities at school and their influence on urban segregation, and also from their skills in terms of teaching and running educational establishments. They can also mobilise their partners in industry, government and even the media. As social institutions, universities must actively help build social solidarity and no longer be content simply to look after their own development.

It is with this in mind that in 2001 Sciences Po launched a programme of Priority Education Agreements with secondary schools in underprivileged areas. We currently work with 33 schools and have provided places to 189 particularly outstanding students whose access to selective higher education would have otherwise been impossible due to the social biases of the normal selection procedures based on dissertations, and also to a kind of self-censorship practised by the students themselves.

Our sole merit is to have deliberately gone out to find these candidates on the basis of teachers’ reports and in-depth interviews at Sciences Po. What are the results six years down the line?

Obviously the first outcome has been the social diversification of students at Sciences Po, leading to similar initiatives in other higher education establishments. There has also been a knock-on effect in the hiring practices of firms, which have made diversification a cornerstone of their human resources policy. Even the French government administration is considering introducing new selection procedures.

Most of all, this genuine partnership with schools has considerably improved the degree to which secondary school children are prepared to invest in their own education. It has raised the level of their ambitions: they are now setting their sights on training at a far higher level. Our action has had an impact well beyond the walls of Sciences Po.

Drawing on this experience, we are now launching a new initiative based on the same principles, in which the starting point is that of educational establishments and individuals who alone are capable of identifying successes and analysing failures. In many cases the French educational system is incapable of mobilising all pupils in disadvantaged areas. Also, there is growing concern among firms that they may not be able to find enough motivated and educated recruits to replace the baby-boom generation about to retire. True, teachers and headmasters continue to find innovative ways to lend new momentum to teaching establishments and motivate pupils. But the organisational and managerial system in place is unable to properly identify, codify and disseminate good practices.

An association of headmasters, teachers and local activists has drawn up a framework project by simply pooling teaching methods which work well elsewhere but which few people ever think of sharing. These include regular meetings with families, one-on-one tutorial support, multidisciplinary courses, active co-operation with firms, collaboration with colleges and higher educational establishments to instil genuine career guidance procedures, etc. This educational project will be implemented at the start of the 2006 academic year in four secondary schools in Seine-Saint-Denis, a particularly disadvantaged Paris suburb, with the aim of networking with all other establishments which might like to take part in the project. A new secondary school may also be set up.

In all countries, the debate over education is of a political, if not ideological, nature and involves government ministers, parties and trade unions. However, we remain firmly convinced that we can only bring about changes for the better in education by starting at the grass-roots level.

It is fascinating to see how experimenting can alter our approach. Teachers’ unions regularly inveigh against “recruiting” secondary school teachers according to the fitness of the match between their experience and the plans for the establishment. Seniority is the main system used to assign teachers to schools in this complex system, regardless of the quality of their professional skills. But four secondary schools now working on a new teaching project have all reached the same conclusion, namely that teachers must be recruited on the basis of the project.

Many commentators worry about barriers in contemporary society and the difficulties of reform. But we are convinced that our societies know perfectly well how to adapt and innovate on a permanent basis, provided we start with practical real-life situations. The universities stand ready to mobilise their resources and help move this process forward.

©OECD Observer No 255, May 2006




Economic data

GDP growth: +0.6% Q3 2017 year-on-year
Consumer price inflation: 2.3% Dec 2017 annual
Trade: +4.3% exp, +4.3% imp, Q3 2017
Unemployment: 5.5% Dec 2017
Last update: 12 Feb 2018

E-Newsletter

Stay up-to-date with the latest news from the OECD by signing up for our e-newsletter :

Twitter feed

Suscribe now

<b>Subscribe now!</b>

To receive your exclusive paper editions delivered to you directly


Online edition
Previous editions

Don't miss

  • Ambassador Aleksander Surdej, Permanent Representative of Poland to the OECD, was a guest on France 24’s English-language show “The Debate”, where he discussed French President Emmanuel Macron’s speech at the World Economic Forum in Davos.
  • The fight against tax evasion is gaining further momentum as Barbados, Côte d’Ivoire, Jamaica, Malaysia, Panama and Tunisia signed the BEPS Multilateral Convention on 24 January, bringing the total number of signatories to 78. The Convention strengthens existing tax treaties and reduces opportunities for tax avoidance by multinational enterprises.
  • Rousseau
  • Do you trust your government? The OECD’s How's life 2017 report finds that only 38% of people in OECD countries trust their government. How can we improve our old "Social contract?" Read more.
  • Papers show “past coming back to haunt us”: OECD Secretary-General Angel Gurria tells Sky News that the so-called "Paradise Papers" show a past coming back to haunt us, but one which is now being dismantled. Please watch the video.
  • When someone asks me to describe an ideal girl, in my head, she is a person who is physically and mentally independent, brave to speak her mind, treated with respect just like she treats others, and inspiring to herself and others. But I know that the reality is still so much different. By Alda, 18, on International Day of the Girl. Read more.
  • Globalisation’s many benefits have been unequally shared, and public policy has struggled to keep up with a rapidly-shifting world. The OECD is working alongside governments and international organisations to help improve and harness the gains while tackling the root causes of inequality, and ensuring a level playing field globally. Please watch.
  • Read some of the insightful remarks made at OECD Forum 2017, held on 6-7 June. OECD Forum kick-started events with a focus on inclusive growth, digitalisation, and trust, under the overall theme of Bridging Divides.
  • Checking out the job situation with the OECD scoreboard of labour market performances: do you want to know how your country compares with neighbours and competitors on income levels or employment?
  • Trade is an important point of focus in today’s international economy. This video presents facts and statistics from OECD’s most recent publications on this topic.
  • The OECD Gender Initiative examines existing barriers to gender equality in education, employment, and entrepreneurship. The gender portal monitors the progress made by governments to promote gender equality in both OECD and non-OECD countries and provides good practices based on analytical tools and reliable data.
  • Interested in a career in Paris at the OECD? The OECD is a major international organisation, with a mission to build better policies for better lives. With our hub based in one of the world's global cities and offices across continents, find out more at www.oecd.org/careers .
  • Visit the OECD Gender Data Portal. Selected indicators shedding light on gender inequalities in education, employment and entrepreneurship.

Most Popular Articles

OECD Insights Blog

NOTE: All signed articles in the OECD Observer express the opinions of the authors
and do not necessarily represent the official views of OECD member countries.

All rights reserved. OECD 2018