In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Civic and Social Engagement of Higher Education

  • Introduction
  • The Social Benefits of Higher Education
  • Channels of Interaction between Higher Education and Society

Education Civic and Social Engagement of Higher Education
Ana Godonoga, Cláudia S. Sarrico
  • LAST REVIEWED: 21 February 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 21 February 2023
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756810-0219


The mission of higher education goes beyond the functions of education and research. Civic and social engagement—often described as the “third mission” (i.e., an additional mission to the two core missions of education and research)—has always been there to different extents, especially for institutions explicitly invested with that mission, such as technical universities, university colleges, polytechnics, and universities of applied sciences. In addition, universities have historically played a role in training staff for state bureaucracies and professionals for the world of industry and services, and as such they have been agents of state building, promoters of national culture, and engines of economic development. Nonetheless, the importance of this third mission has become more pressing in today’s increasingly divided societies. Higher education through civic and social engagement moves away from the perceived notion of the ivory tower to engage with the wider world, thus helping bring together the haves and the have nots, the insiders and the outsiders. The concept of civic and social engagement is multifaceted—comprising everything that higher education does but that is not strictly in the domain of learning and teaching and research and scholarship (hence “third mission”), and it has evolved over time to integrate different dimensions. Moreover, civic and social engagement is not at all separate from education and research, but rather interacts with those missions to extend the work of higher education beyond its walls. It reaches beyond academia and the traditional straight-from-secondary-school student body to engage more people through continuing education and lifelong learning. It goes beyond knowledge creation and concerns with scientific impact, to the transfer, exchange, and co-creation of knowledge and technology to and with society to effect societal impact. Civic and social engagement of higher education contributes to the economic, social, cultural, and environmental development of societies, through different channels of interaction between higher education and industry, government and the social sector, at different territorial levels—from the city or municipality to the region, state, or province, to the national and supranational level.

Engagement in Higher Education: Concepts and Definitions

Across the world, institutions of higher education are increasingly expected to fulfill a civic role in society. At the same time, the nature and purpose of their engagement activities are likely to be different based on where institutions are located, their roles and missions, and the contexts in which they operate. Thus, higher education engagement with the wider world can take many forms, and over time different concepts and definitions have emerged to describe the engagement function of higher education.

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