Transforming universities: Service-Learning as a paradigm

Josep M. Vilalta

Opinion article by Josep M. Vilalta, GUNi director. Originally published in Spanish by Universidad SÍ.

A tenacious work for a hopeful present

Something is moving in universities. Little by little, we are seeing new lines of work in what could be included within the concept of social responsibility of the university institution. We speak, in this sense, of initiatives such as Service-Learning, citizen science, the implementation of Agenda 2030 and the Sustainable Development Goals, social innovation, sustainability, responsible research and innovation, volunteering.

Undoubtedly, albeit timidly, the vision of a socially committed university as a beacon of the society of the future is gaining relevance.

A good example of this is the progress, in recent years, of Service-Learning in Spanish universities. Just a few days ago, the IX Spanish and V International Congress on University Service-Learning was held in Barcelona. It was attended by 285 people and 185 papers were presented, with the central theme of the impact of Service-Learning on education and society. These figures demonstrate the growing activity and interest of groups of teachers, researchers and organizations in this methodology.

Service-Learning, a responsible innovation

Behind all this is the tenacious work of departments, groups of professors and entities that develop their activity with great responsibility to extend, little by little, the Service-Learning approach. Many universities already have Service-Learning offices and plans, while others are beginning to consider initial measures or pilot tests.

In Catalonia, for example, the Service-Learning University Network (ApSUCat) was created a few years ago, which promotes activities, analyses and shares results, and periodically publishes guides. Other communities and universities are working in the same direction.

In recent years, books and monographs of great interest have also been published, and awards have been established such as the Laura Rubio Award, in tribute to the professor at the University of Barcelona who did so much for Service-Learning and who left us too soon. In fact, a good example of all this is the political interest aroused by the conference in Barcelona, with the attendance of the Minister of Universities, Joan Subirats, and the active presence of almost all the rectors of the Catalan universities.

Extending Service-Learning requires rethinking the social function of the university

As we know, Service-Learning is an educational tool or methodology that integrates community service and academic learning in a single project, which allows the student to be trained by working on supporting and helping real needs of the environment, with the aim of improving it (Guia 0, Fer aprenentatge servei a la universitat, ApSUCat-ACUP, 2019).

But beyond a methodology, Service-Learning constitutes, in fact, a paradigm about how we understand training and what social role universities, teachers-researchers and students themselves should play.

For Josep M. Puig Rovira, professor of Theory of Education at the University of Barcelona and one of the great experts on the subject, Service-Learning is an authentic model that works under the common paradigm, under the idea that social action is the engine of life. For Puig Rovira, education should not only prepare for life, but should also prepare for change, for transforming life. In short, according to him, it is a question of authentic and committed learning, based on a holistic conception, where training and knowledge are fully distributed: among teachers, of course, but also among students, organizations, institutions, and companies. In the network itself.

Service-Learning changes the educational paradigm: it is based on authentic learning committed to social transformation. This in no way undermines quality or excellence.

A change of educational paradigm

Service-Learning understands education as something collective that concerns us all and that is acquired in any place, at any time or in any format. It emerges from the local (local educational ecosystems) to the general. It aims to turn criticism into commitment.

As we know from empirical evidence, everything we learn through real practice has a greater impact on our body of knowledge, values, skills, and practices. We also recognize the importance of social and emotional skills and metacognitive competencies.

In the complex and dynamic world in which we live, in a global society increasingly governed by Artificial Intelligence, training in values, social skills, and competencies are key aspects for each of us and for society as a whole.

Transforming universities

For all these reasons, I think that Service-Learning and other methodologies/paradigms will not be able to spread widely in our universities without first transforming the institutions and orienting them towards an unequivocal social commitment. A commitment that constitutes their central mission. Which, at the same time, places the student at the center.

It is no longer a question of a 'third mission', as we have become familiar to defining it. It is a single mission: commitment to the advancement of society and knowledge, which translates into training, research, and innovation. If this is not the case, Service-Learning and other methodologies will remain meritorious but institutionally testimonial, at the margins of the general university system.

About the author

Josep M. Vilalta, GUNi director


  • UNESCO. United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization
  • The Catalan Association of Public Universities (ACUP)

Sponsored by

  • Generalitat de Catalunya. Ministry of Business and Employment. Department of Research and Universities
  • Generalitat de Catalunya. Ministry for Foreign Action and Open Government