Report outlines keys to recognising the public value of universities

New report about rankings
A new report says the societal impact of universities should be recognised in university rankings.

The societal impact of universities should be measured, resourced and recognised through prominent channels such as global university rankings, a new report recommends.

Authored by senior leaders at King’s College London, the University of Chicago and the University of Melbourne, with support from management consultancy Nous Group, the Advancing University Engagement Report says the changes are needed to counteract a “corrosive narrative” that universities are disconnected and elitist, at a moment when holistic engagement underpins significant university efforts to respond to the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic and redress economic disruption and societal challenges.

The report proposes a new framework to measure and assess university engagement, which could be incorporated into global university league tables. Doing so would recognise university efforts to serve local communities and wider society, while better showcasing the existing benefits they produce, the report argues.

University of Melbourne Vice-President (Strategy and Culture) Dr Julie Wells, said: “Universities take an active role in the intellectual, cultural, social and economic lives of their communities. This is understood across campuses globally, reflected by policymakers and felt by university constituents, though remains conspicuously absent in global conversations about excellence. This project is designed to advance our thinking about how universities might demonstrate the value of engagement, and, with more than 20 universities participating in pilot studies, it has provided some great learnings about how different universities around the world are creating value in partnership with their communities”.

King's College London Vice-President and Vice-Principal (Service) Professor Jonathan Grant, said: “At a time when universities in many countries are seeking support from governments and taxpayers to mitigate the impacts of COVID-19, there is a real need for the higher education sector to better demonstrate the myriad benefits it brings to society. A new system that recognises these benefits would reassure the public and students that they are getting value for money, as well as incentivising institutions to do more for communities and societies around the world.”

University of Chicago Vice-President of Civic Engagement and External Affairs Derek R.B. Douglas, said: “Universities are often the anchor institutions in their communities and as such they have the ability to make a tremendous positive impact. The framework this report is proposing would provide a concrete way to measure that impact and encourage universities to not only invest further in engagement at a time when societal needs are most pressing, but also make it central to their identity as an institution.”

The framework – which includes eight indicators of engagement – is based on expert input, feedback from consultations around the world, and three pilot studies with 20 universities.

Among the indicators it proposes for universities are the proportion of their budget spent on procurement that has a societal benefit, on their carbon footprint, and on their “research reach”. While universities’ research output is already assessed by other frameworks, the authors suggest a new measure of reach beyond academic journals, which would include citations in grey literature, the media and policy papers.

On students, the report says institutions’ engagement should be assessed by their support for underrepresented student groups. The proportion of students and staff participating in volunteering programmes should also be included, as should the proportion of the curriculum dedicated to courses that have a practical community engagement element.

More broadly, the framework would also seek evidence of university commitment to the principles and practices of engagement, and how they are regarded by partners, including not-for-profits, business and government.

The report is just the beginning of this effort, the co-authors write. Next steps include continuing to build a global community of engagement experts who can share best practices and ideas, seeking partners to help take the project into its next phase, and exploring other avenues of collaboration to measure and promote engagement in the higher education sector.

“We hope this will advance a global conversation to reposition universities with civic engagement as a core part of their mission,” the report says.