This is an article from University World News, an online publication that covers global higher education. It is presented here under an agreement with The Chronicle.
Reconciling the wish to prioritise societal and development goals with growing pressures to perform on other core missions has emerged as a major dilemma for universities in "The World Beyond 2015", a campaign of the Association of Commonwealth Universities to raise awareness of why and how higher education should respond to global challenges.
Academics and institutions from around the world have made submissions to the campaign, which has the subtitle "Is higher education ready?"
This is a key question for a sector that was marginalised in the Millennium Development Goals, or MDGs, and which has been vigorously arguing that it has an essential role to play in helping to achieve international development goals.
If higher education finds recognition in new targets being formulated during the course of this year to replace the expiring MDGs - either as a goal in its own right, or via explicit recognition that the sector is intrinsic to all new goals - it had better be prepared.
The Association of Commonwealth Universities, or ACU, which represents 500 member universities in countries across the Commonwealth, believed it was imperative for higher education to begin considering the implications of the new international agenda and how institutions could respond to the new goals as they emerged.
Dr John Kirkland, deputy secretary general of the ACU, said considerable damage had been done to higher education 15 years ago, when the international development community prioritised other areas of education, especially primary education.
"For a while, in many parts of the world, higher education went into serious decline," he told University World News. "Now, having established itself as a genuine development activity, higher education wants this to be recognised in any successor to the MDG goals.
"It is crucial that a holistic approach is taken."
Six questions were devised to frame the debate while new international goals were being decided, said Kirkland, and a call was put out for individuals and institutions to contribute to the debate through submissions.
As expected, most submissions have been from people already active in the area. But "The World Beyond 2015. Is higher education ready?" is not just about illustrating how universities are currently supporting development, and championing their cause.
"One could have a huge campaign that just gets more examples of what universities are doing. But we don't want the campaign to be just about that. We also want it to be an opportunity for universities to look at themselves.
"It is a challenge to universities regarding whether their systems are ready for mass higher education, and regarding their research and community engagement systems in a world in which higher education plays a leading role in development activity," Kirkland said.
"What we are finding is that universities, particularly in developing countries, are still very much devising systems to support a lot of development-oriented activities." This despite the fact that community engagement and extension work - for instance in agriculture - had been in the missions of African universities longer than for UK universities.
Further, Kirkland told University World News: "Although universities speak about the 'third strand', in practice this work still tends to be at the periphery.
"A big question emerging is whether one should centralise that. And what are the incentives to take part? What is the equivalent of publications in research? Is it supported by a central office and highlighted in annual reports?
"What we are finding in all countries is a continuing dilemma in how far to prioritise these aspects."
Universities everywhere were under huge pressure, Kirkland continued. "In the past 20 years universities have had to get used to constraints on the time of their staff - an environment in which time has real opportunity cost.
"If universities want to prioritise societal and development goals, we have to find some way of reconciling this with other core activities. With a finite amount of time and allocation, we have to make sure that development goals are embedded in the university.
"This is a challenge for universities as much as it is for outside organisations."
The six questions, and some answers
A document recently produced by the ACU looked at submissions so far in relation to the six questions that that frame "The World Beyond 2015" campaign.
1- Why does the Post-2015 agenda matter for higher education?
The ACU quotes Ian Thornton, deputy director of the UK Collaborative on Development Sciences, thus: "The MDGs have been criticised for being an international framework written by a select few in a New York basement.
"Millions of dollars and unthinkable man-hours have gone into making the post-2015 process globally consultative. Higher education institutions now have a fantastic opportunity and responsibility to continue this open, discursive agenda wherever they are."
2- How are universities already addressing local, national and international issues?
A range of case studies from numerous countries highlight the impact of universities on local communities and beyond - such as Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology's user-friendly water filter and the Group of Eight universities in Australia's involvement in the global fight against malaria.
3- How can universities prepare to respond to the Post-2015 agenda?
Submissions, the ACU document says, point to numerous important issues for universities and those who fund and support them.
"Universities need to prepare their students - through, for example, broader science training and enhancing graduate employability - as well as reform themselves, by boosting the participation of women in senior roles and refocusing on their historic mission to serve the world, despite changing societal demands."
4- What partnerships should universities establish to achieve their objectives?
The responses to the campaign so far have highlighted the need for a range of partners - such as business, civil society, NGOs and other universities - to leverage research for maximum impact.
"Successful partnerships increase the impact of research and foster productive links with communities and policy-makers. They also have a role to play in supporting students, through enhancing teaching and learning and improving employability," says the ACU.
It quotes Chris Roche, of La Trobe University in Australia, as saying: "If you are interested in these kinds of issues, working on your own, even if you are a large cashed-up university, is simply not going to work."
5- How can universities champion their contributions to wider society?
Universities need to engage their publics, and communication is key. Paul Geswindt, of Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University in South Africa, said: "There are many stories to be told not just about teaching, research and engagement but also students and staff and the communities and issues they represent."
6- How relevant and realistic are the Post-2015 goals likely to be?
Five 'transformative shifts' identified by the United Nations High-Level Panel "have added a new dimension to the post-2015 process", according to the ACU - "and the targets themselves may look very different to the MDGs".
Within the 'illustrative goals' already developed, and the 'transformative shifts', the ACU is asking universities what specific interventions and targets higher education can deliver, and what support universities need in order to deliver them.
The role of universities
In a background paper, the ACU points out that there is plenty of evidence of universities and research institutions playing "a huge role in development terms" as agents to address international development goals.
"The view from the Commonwealth Secretariat is that higher education is inextricably connected to prospects for development, through the teaching, research and engagement capacities intrinsic to the university system."
"The connection between universities' capacity to effect social change and the specific targets set out by the UN in 2000 has been apparent to global leaders in the higher education sector for some time."
While some were advocating higher education as a discrete goal, to which funds could be directed for specific support, others were pushing for the recognition that higher education is intrinsic to all new goals.
"The role of the Beyond 2015 campaign is not to declare the best approach, but instead to convene leading lights and active members of the higher education community in the discussion, to better incorporate the experiences of the past decade in informing progress towards the next."