Emerging Paradigm of Institutional Social Responsibility

One of the major roles of a university is to prepare students for life and to shape them into responsible citizens who could contribute positively to national development and wellbeing of humanity. Accordingly, universities, and even other higher education institutions (HEIs), are expected to respond to their social role in a variety of contexts: local, regional, national and global. While the local communities fall within the area of influence of the institutions, the area of interest circumscribes the regional entities and the national and global partners form part of the broader areas of interest. HEIs are required to be responsive to the needs of society and engage with numerous stakeholders, both internal and external. Generation Z, an internal stakeholder, displays increasing preference for meaningful work and does not hesitate from pursuing non-traditional career paths. This generation aspires to become influencers and also is inclined toward making social impact. Additionally, local communities, as external stakeholders, have expectations from HEIs and aspire for positive changes in their surroundings. There are aspirations related to socio-economic development at regional and national levels too. This societal dimension demands universities to make concerted and pragmatic efforts to bring about a change and has come to be known as institutional social responsibility. It encompasses all facets of a university’s impact on society, both in terms of engagement and internal strategic practices.

Many leading universities in the developed world give due credit to social engagement of students in their admission processes. There are universities that require students to work for a social cause as part of co-curricular activities. There is increasing social awareness for social engagement and it is not uncommon to see students taking sabbaticals from their studies and working for a social cause either in their own country or some other underdeveloped region. Thus, institutional social responsibility has come to be recognised as a strategic commitment where wider society acts as a stakeholder of the university making an impact on the design of its operational strategies. It also facilitates identification of more specific groups of external stakeholders, conceptualising policies that benefit them as well as the internal stakeholders.

The Indian Context

 Seva as a concept is an essential facet of Indian culture. It implies selfless service without any expectation of rewards for performing it. Seva is generally rendered for the benefit of other human beings or society. It involves disciplined devotion, compassion and kindness. Hindu religious thought portrays it as sadhana – an ego-transcending spiritual practice.  Seva is expected to be labour of love performed without desire and intention, and with the spirit to nurture humility. Ancient Indian scriptures describe Seva as the highest form ofdharma.  Seva, as one of the main teachings of Sikhism, has set forth a tradition with an understanding that there is God within every human being, and thus by serving humanity one is serving God’s creation. It is believed to be a way to control worldly vices  and facilitates getting closer to God. Christianity also advocates service wherein caring for and healing the sick and by expressing concern for them is considered a righteous deed. Establishment of many church hospitals and ecclesiastical nursing care have been important facets of Christianity. Similarly, Islam preaches that service to living beings should be all-encompassing and on a collective basis. Likewise, other Indian religions also lay emphasis on Seva in one form or another.

 Social Service and Indian Universities

 Incorporating social service as an essential element of the working philosophy of universities is in consonance with Indian culture and religious tenets. In fact, when in 1948, the Radhakrishnan Committee in its recommendations suggested religion to be part of curricula at Indian HEIs, they had such noble thoughts in mind. Unfortunately, the recommendations were not accepted. Perhaps, religion was perceived through a narrow prism of rituals and symbolism by the decision makers.

National Service Scheme (NSS) was launched in India by the Central Government in 1969 to coincide with the birth centenary of Mahatma Gandhi. It provides opportunity to students in schools at Plus 2 level and at colleges and universities to take part in various activities related to community service and programmes. Its aim is to provide hands on experience to young students in delivering social service. The objectives of NSS are to facilitate understanding of the students about the community that they serve, identify the needs and challenges and get involved in solving those, develop a sense of social and civic responsibility, engender competence and skills required for group-living and sharing responsibilities, acquire leadership qualities, and practice national integration and social harmony. For this purpose, institutions are provided funds to raise and operate NSS units. Students who participate in NSS activities are awarded certificates and they get credits for the same for admissions to various study programmes and in some other competitive ventures. There are other schemes like NCC and National Yuva Kendra Sangathan (NYKS) with similar objectives. However, in majority of the cases, the activities of these schemes are not based on any systematic plans and most of the institutions adopt ad hoc measures. There are no planned outcomes and no impact assessment is carried out.

As it currently stands, in HEIs it is only a small group of students and one or two members of faculty who get involved in social-service activities. The university, as an organisation, does not engage with the community to provide its expertise and does not collaborate with other organisations like those from industry or NGOs in a systemic manner. Thus, the universities do not have structured plans to practice institutional social responsibility. Further, the managements of the universities do not get involved in formulating strategies related to institutional social responsibility. Time has come for the universities to incorporate social dimension in their operational philosophy,  work with local communities, identify challenges, conceptualise plans and make use of their expertise to bring about a change. The managements of universities need to provide requisite support and resources for such ventures.

It must be understood that the concept of institutional social responsibility, as it has emerged, entails awareness of the effects of actions and policies of the university on external stakeholders. Thus, the universities need to devise integrated models in consonance with the concept of institutional social responsibility. Further, depending upon their vision and mission, location and social context universities are expected to devise their own specific approach instead of looking for a  universal model. The guiding principle is to know, monitor and evaluate the impact on society generally and on university’s stakeholders in particular. The evaluation of these impacts would enable the university to set new goals and prepare a model that respects the aspirations of various stakeholders.

Preparatory Steps

 Institutional social responsibility demands sincerity of purpose and strong commitment. Training of key staff members is a critical first step. Indian HEIs are fortunate that they have NSS units as models which could form the core for a university-level model to build upon. A university could form a  planning committee that could interact with stakeholders and identify their needs. Thereafter, project teams could be formed to take up different ventures. Members of the management of university, faculty, administration, students, alumni and stakeholders from the community should be invited to take part in strategic planning process.

Some Guidelines for Universities

 The concept of institutional social responsibility, especially in India, is still in a nascent stage. Adequate and relevant study material is not yet available. There may be some learning-points that could be borrowed from foreign universities. But due care would have to be taken to suitably modify these based on Indian environmental factors. The training of staff members could involve study of the concept of institutional social responsibility, process of identification of stakeholders and their needs, studying existing institutional social responsibility processes and practices, preparation of plans and guidelines for implementation, conceptualising guidelines for monitoring and finally preparing metrics to carry out an impact assessment.

It is imperative that the management of the university is convinced about the need and benefits of institutional social responsibility. There could be opposition from faculty-members and researchers who may perceive it as a distraction from their main responsibilities. They would have to be apprised and educated about the role of the university and the imperatives that guide its operational plans. There could also be financial constraints. Universities would do well to collaborate with industry and joint projects could be launched as part of corporate social responsibility of the latter.

It is imperative that the university should be able to evolve and nurture a culture of making an impact, and engagement with stakeholders. A strategy should be worked out to communicate with the stakeholders, and simultaneously motivate the faculty, researchers, administrative staff and students to participate enthusiastically. It has to be a team effort.


 The UNO had in 2015 formulated 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) that basically aim to eradicate poverty, protect the planet, and to ensure that by 2030 all people enjoy peace and prosperity. These SDGs are integrated and actions in one area could affect outcomes in others. The development processes must balance social, economic and environmental sustainability. Universities are responsible for nurturing future generations, preparing students for life and to make them responsible citizens who contribute effectively to national development and wellbeing of humanity. Being aware of institutional social responsibility and adopting measures to make it happen could facilitate universities in participating in nation building process and also in making the planet-earth a better place to live.

7 thoughts on “Emerging Paradigm of Institutional Social Responsibility”
  1. A very important issue has been highlighted and what needs to be done by HEIs and How adds to the ‘punch’ of the Blog

  2. Well researched and written. You always bring up important topics and give what needs to be done to actually achieve the Targets in Letter and Sprit.

  3. Excellent write-up. An important topic for our HEIs. The guidelines for Universities that you have highlighted need to become part and parcel of the University curriculum through a regulatory framework. Some aspects of ISR need to begin at the School level.

  4. Seva or care and service for others is an attribute recognised by all religions, and can be the basis of inculcating social responsibility in the youth. The article goes on to explain how this can be better promoted in Higher Education Institutes.
    The effect can be far reaching, both uplifting and uniting, by addressing the youth as a part of their education. It is simple yet brilliant in its approach.

  5. Institutional social responsibility should be the backbone of the changing face of India where the development and changing societal norms mandate a sensitisation towards the challenges which are new and dynamic.
    Comprehensive articles like this one has the power to challenge the status quo…

  6. Sir, this is a very good and timely article for our universities. I presume it is not only desirable for the universities but should be made mandatory because if you look into the objectives of opening an university/institure of learning it surely transcends beyond the short sighted views of creating graduates but to contribute largely to the society as a whole. Especially, the government funded universities/institutes can lead this process and create examples and test cases which then eventually will also percolate down to private universities.
    For example, potable water crisis is a very important priblem in Chennai. The Madras University and the IIT, Madras can work with the local administrative stake holders and try to address the problem. Such a case study can help other HEIs in different localities to take up similar local or social projects with help of faculty, students and community stakeholder. Such an endeavor will be enriching the students experience and learning and benefit the community in general and also enhance the repoutation of the IHE.

  7. Our son Nikhil, during his summer vacation after his second year of graduation went to Kolkata to volunteer at Mother Theresa’s Ashram – Shishu Bhawan – to take care of mentally challenged children. I offered to bear the air ticket but refused saying that he had saved enough from his part-time job as a swimming instructor at the City’s swimming pool.

    On reaching the Ashram he called me to ask, “Dad, how come there is no Indian volunteers here. I’m the only half-Indian here!”

    In Canada, to graduate from Highschool, 40 hours of community work is mandatory. Here too, many Indian origin children with the connivance of their parents take shortcuts.

Leave a Comment