Social responsibility is the intriguing theory that an organisation should act ethically in order to benefit society. Generally speaking, universities by their very nature are socially responsible. Their major function is to take in students and turn them into enlightened graduates. Their staff not only educate eager minds but conduct research, furthering the boundaries of human understanding. And their profits tend to be funnelled back into these endeavours, rather than distributed to shareholders.
That is not to say all the elements of a university’s operation will always be carried out in a socially responsible manner, though the University of St Andrews has a decent track record. It regularly makes available funds for student accommodation bursaries and Widening Access schemes. It was one of the first universities in the world to sign the UN-backed Principles of Responsible Investment, pledging to invest its endowment ethically. It stood up for academic freedoms when it found its own rector, Alistair Moffat, to have stifled scientific debate. And it has made hesitant steps toward solving St Andrews’ accommodation crisis.
But, as two articles in today’s issue of this newspaper show, there is always room for improvement. The first regards zero hour contracts, the controversial practice under which staff are always on call with no guarantee of work. These contracts are favoured by employers for their flexibility but leave employees with unpredictable hours and earnings.
The University employs 51 people on these terms. It has said that they receive the same benefits and rights as its regular staff, which is more generous than many organisations making use of zero hour contracts, but nothing can make up for the uncertainty of not knowing when the next work – and pay slip – will come. The University of Edinburgh has recently bowed to pressure from the NUS, UCU and other unions and agreed to phase out the use of these contracts. It is time for St Andrews to do the socially responsible thing and follow that lead.
The second article today involves the amount of food waste being generated in halls of residence. This is a problem well known to anyone who has stayed in halls, but concerns are now explicitly being raised with the University. Unfortunately there seems to be as little appetite for changing policy as there does for finishing all the food cooked up for hall meals.
As the University’s catering manager points out, it already implements several recycling policies and is trialing new ways to reduce the amount of food produced to begin with. Several sensible and obvious solutions have been missed, however, such as one proposed by Daniel Helbig: allowing students to inform catering staff that they will miss a meal. It is also worth reconsidering whether students who arrive later to meals should expect the same range of options as those who queue up at the doors.
These issues evidently have not gone unnoticed, but there is work to be done on both. Now is an excellent opportunity for the University to act ethically and show that social responsibility is more than just a theory.