PA Consulting Should universities be a force for social good?

Should universities be a force for social good?


A university's social mission has got lost in the frenzy around national hot topic debates, but there is a way to get back to serving the local community, argues Paul Woodgates

“Imagine if a university totally reoriented itself around redeveloping its locality. So it would only offer teaching and research directly relevant to this mission. It might bring in local employers, partner with private training providers, and only carry out research that would benefit the community,” says Paul Woodgates, Head of Services tor The Education Sector at PA Consulting Group. “We’re a long way away from that, but could there be somewhere a step back from this that would work?”

Woodgates is describing a hypothetical institution whose mission revolves around the community it serves. His point? That higher education institutions have become so embroiled in debates about fees, vice-chancellors’ salaries and graduate employability that they are failing to assert their important role in our communities.

“It seems the sector has got caught in a stream of responding to arguments about employability, and whether graduates earn enough to justify a loan, but this means we lose sight of what else they’re about,” he adds. “Yes, you go to university to increase your earning capability but universities also have an important social mission - I feel that’s got lost.”

With competition for research funding and international collaborations, it’s hard to blame universities for shifting their focus beyond both local and national borders. Many of the post-1992 institutions recruit students locally and so tend to have the strongest role in their surrounding areas, suggests Woodgates, but others are arguably less proactive (or at least, less vocal) at this type of local engagement. When it comes to promoting the value of research, for example, would the majority of the population link the development of a cure for cancer with a particular university or be more likely to link that to the NHS or a charity? Probably the latter, he argues.

“A lot of great research goes on in universities that has a direct relevance to society,” says Woodgates. “Universities do a lot of marketing around their student offer, particularly during clearing, but it tends to be aimed at recruitment rather than telling stories about their research and its value in the community.” 

“But how do you measure it?” he adds. “We have measures for teaching quality, research and so on, however imperfect. Could we create a measure that’s a proxy for a university’s societal value?”  Woodgates argues that promoting higher education’s social contribution should be about more than simply counting the number of students from lower economic backgrounds that obtain a degree, and that universities should share more stories about their activities outside the academic arena. 

There are examples such as London South Bank University, which has partnered with a group of complimentary education providers, employers and civic partners known as the Learning Family, to provide a wide range of educational opportunities, careers advice and exposure to work experience in an area known for its pockets of deprivation. Initiatives such as this could also do much to shift the idea, often pushed by the mainstream media, that university leaders are overpaid and disconnected from the rest of society.

“If you said to the man or woman in the street, do you think the boss of an institution that teaches thousands of kids after they leave school should earn such a high salary, they’d probably say no,” says Woodgates. “Ask them if that boss was driving an institution to find a cure for cancer or develop important nanotechnology, they might be more inclined to say yes.”

And while it’s an integral part of the vice-chancellor or other leadership roles to engage with local authorities and major employers, shouldn’t all academics and university staff have a role here? Woodgates believes so. “If you do pioneering research, could you expand that relationship by inviting local people to view your findings in the town hall, running evening classes or massive open online courses (MOOCs), for example?” 

Finally, he argues that there’s a strong case for universities to extract more value out of their physical infrastructure and facilities such as sports pitches or halls – particularly during periods when they are under-utilised. “Universities could do more to offer this physical infrastructure to benefit local populations,” he says. “They need to balance this with keeping everything secure, but it would show they’re “open” to the community and not just behind a gate.”

Paul Woodgates is head of higher education at PA Consulting. 

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