Our world presents a worrying social panorama, although it has great possibilities in all areas of life. That is the reason why in 2015 the United Nations defined 17 global objectives to eradicate poverty, protect the planet and ensure prosperity for all as part of a new sustainable development agenda. In Europe these problems have been felt later and with less intensity, but they are increasingly pressing. Every day more people suffer the consequences of the crises of economic systems and the shortage of effective responses by institutions.
More and more, in Europe, communities need actively committed citizens to defend social justice and use their energy and talent in promoting initiatives to build a society with possibilities for a better future. The University should not remain indifferent to these objectives. The challenge for European higher education is to reconsider its mission: to educate students for a life as responsible citizens, instead of educating students solely for a career. Its function must be to train competent professionals connected to the needs of the community. It is necessary to combine academic rigor for the development of professional skills with social commitment. In this way, the new European university will connect theory with practice to face social problems.
For this, the most appropriate pedagogical model is experiential learning, which allows the student to connect the practical experience with the training that is given in the classrooms, in an area that is outside of their comfort zone.
But how to make these experiences a reality? Bringing the university student closer to reality can be done through various educational techniques, such as external professional practices and field visits. Our proposal is service-learning with a focus on social justice, as a way of going beyond the walls of the university, connecting theory with practice and improving learning, but also (and fundamentally), connecting with the community and its needs, and contributing to improve society and, specifically, the lives of the most vulnerable people.
Current European policy calls for universities to promote social and civic responsibility practices that combine academic learning in the different degrees with the provision of services to the community, aimed at improving the quality of life and social inclusion. But this claim, reflected in the mission statement of most European universities, has little effect in the classrooms.
Service-learning is consolidated in higher education in other regions of the world, where not only projects are developed, but there are structures inside and outside the university that support and promote these actions. Europe is the last region to incorporate this methodology. But the time has come to promote the use and institutionalization of service-learning in European higher education in order to make real the University’s mission by improving learning and contributing to the development of more just societies. Each day there are more and more service- learning experiences linked to subjects, internships, master thesis, etc., but much remains to be done. Our intention is to continue promoting the use of service-learning until all students in all European universities have the opportunity to acquire professional skills while responding to the needs of the community.