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'The Government and Universities Should Complement One Another in Social Policy'

An important area being researched today is the relationship between universities and the government in the formation of socioeconomic policy, and this discussion was raised at the international seminar ‘Universities, Inclusive Development, and Social Innovation’ that took place as part of HSE’s XVIII April International Academic Conference.

From Deprivation to Welfare Pluralism

The first speaker at the seminar was Claes Brundenius, who talked about the results of an international research group from Lund University (Sweden) that studies the role of universities in economic and social development. Participants of the group work in South America, Europe, South Africa, Russia, China, and Vietnam.

Professor Brundenius noted that the group was particularly worried about the worsening state of the environment, climate change, and growing inequality in terms of income and wealth. According to the group’s study, in 2016 the richest 1% of the population amassed more wealth than all other population groups in the world. What is more, Russia is number one on the list in terms of overall wealth concentration with 70% of wealth belonging to just 1% of the population. In the U.S., Brazil, South Africa, and Sweden, this gap between the wealthiest part of society and other income groups is also growing.

According to Claes Brundenius, there is now a new social class – the deprived. This includes working individuals who are unsure of what tomorrow will bring and who do not feel protected. In addition, the governments of the world currently face the serious problem of choosing between economic growth and equality. This problem has not been resolved, but several studies show that equality promotes growth. And economic growth, Mr Brundenius said, must be based on social innovation and have an impact on the unprotected, inclusive strata of the population. Additionally, a social entrepreneur has to become the new ‘hero of our times,’ the researcher added.

Professor Brundenius also talked about two possible scenarios for the development of society. The first assumes a drop in the government’s role and an increase in the number of private companies (which is currently taking place in the United States). Under this scenario, a third social sector exists, but it is insignificant in the first scenario. Conversely, the second scenario, called welfare pluralism, sees the important role of government and private capital, though it is the third sector that dominates. This is the preferred variant for a country’s economic growth.

The Role of Universities in Inclusive Development

In his paper, ‘Russian Universities as Inclusive Development Participants,’ Senior Research Fellow at the HSE Institute for Statistical Studies and Economics of Knowledge, Stanislav Zaichenko, discussed the key role universities play in forming a social ladder that breaks the social inequality barrier. The vulnerable (inclusive) groups of society include (1) people with disabilities who live in remote regions and have trouble gaining access to common infrastructure, (2) people who find themselves in difficult life situations, (3) victims of natural disasters, and (4) people with low incomes. This inclusive group of society often feels inferior compared to wealthy members of society. What should the government do about this and how can universities help?

First, more opportunities should be created to give people access to technological innovations, particularly internet access and free centres that teach people how to use the internet. Second, a barrier-free environment must be created for the disabled and those with limited mobility. Finally, it is important that the public be provided with individualised and targeted aid. According to the researcher, this is where programmes can be approved at the government level to give people quick access to government services, help them adapt to the urban environment, and more.

The main task of social policy today is to ensure equal opportunity for everyone who wants to get an education. Mr Zaichenko noted, however, that this is easier said than done. The government is currently developing a single set of standards for the individualized instruction of different groups of society. In addition, the government is creating an adapted infrastructure on university campuses, as well as preparing teachers to work with certain groups of society and forming an institution of mentors who will help people adapt to their new environment in the future.

‘In carrying out social policies, the government and universities have to complement one another, and their initiatives should not contradict each other. The competitiveness of universities is currently determined not only by supply and demand on the labour market, but also by having an accessible and comfortable learning environment,’ Zaichenko concluded.

Universities and Business

Nicholas Vonortas from George Washington University, in a joint paper called ‘Cooperation Between Universities and Industry: the Results of Research in Brazil,’ discussed the historic role of U.S. universities in helping local society develop the region. This is why American universities have an excellent understanding of the social problems that exist in society, unlike older European universities that have educated an elite that is separate from most of the population.

In a study on several Brazilian universities, in particular the University of São Paulo, researchers looked at the level of the universities’ involvement in the country’s industry. The main idea behind the project is that universities should not only teach, but also help society and business to develop the region in which they are located.

According to Professor Vonortas, the research group had two hypotheses. The first states that if a university cooperates with the private sector (if students and faculty work with businesses), then it is more likely that the university ‘generates’ a new company. This kind of interaction between universities and business creates a type of social capital, Nicholas Vonortas added. But unfortunately at many universities around the world, he noted, there is no culture in terms of universities and business interacting. This hypothesis was also not confirmed at Brazilian universities.

The second hypothesis states that the quality of interaction with businesses is more important than the quantity or intensity of such interaction. This mostly concerns consulting-related interactions where instructors, graduate students, and top undergraduate students advise businesses. This hypothesis also touches upon interactions that take place with business in the form of student internships, as well as student contracts to carry out general research in the private sector. This sort of interaction is more fruitful since it creates a culture that allows for new companies to be founded. This hypothesis was confirmed. The four Brazilian universities involved in the study accounted for 75% of overall business-university interaction in the country.

The last paper presented at the seminar was ‘Social Innovation and Social Inclusion at Latvian Universities’ by Anda Adamsone-Fiskovica of the Baltic Studies Centre. She discussed the social prospects of inclusivity at Latvian universities amid the considerable social inequality of the population. Despite the ‘inadequacy’ of higher education financing to meet the objectives that have been set, Latvian universities are successfully carrying out social projects such as the Centre for Legal Practices for unprotected strata of the population, the Distance Learning Centre for individuals serving time in prison, ‘Express Health’ to provide medical care and consultations, and more.

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