Universities have been urged to measure their full value to society rather than simply what they spend in order to convince the public and policymakers of their worth.
A report commissioned by the National Co-ordinating Centre for Public Engagement suggests an approach for identifying a university's "socially modified economic valuation" (Smev), which includes a measure of services such as public lectures.
Through a Glass, Darkly: Measuring the Social Value of Universities is co-authored by Iain McNicoll, emeritus professor of the University of Strathclyde, and Ursula Kelly, an independent consultant.
They have previously worked on a number of reports for Universities UK that have investigated the economic impact of higher education institutions.
"We began to get somewhat frustrated because [expressions of value always] look at the expenditure," Ms Kelly said.
"But they don't look at what universities actually do."
Universities have long measured their financial value, for example the spending power of their staff or their total turnover, she explained. But the report recommends finding an economic price for all university "outputs", including those not captured by financial analysis.
These could include "time spent or saved, quality of life and environmental improvements", and might also encompass more "intangible" things such as the worth of political stability, the report argues.
A "social weight" could then be applied to this economic value to reflect social priorities, for example by counting an activity as more valuable if it delivers to the poor rather than the rich.
As an example, the report notes, a one-hour public lecture attended by 80 people would not generate any financial value in conventional measures because no entrance fee is charged. But if, as the Department for Transport estimates, the value of an hour of leisure time is £4.46, the economic value of the lecture could be put at £356.80.
However, as the hypothetical lecture is delivered to poorer people, an "equity social weighting" revises the Smev to between £405 and £442.
With universities being asked to prove their public worth more than ever before, Ms Kelly said, "the time has come that we really need to look at this".
Socially weighted value is already used by the Treasury, she said.
"Policymakers want information to make the decisions they have to make," she continued, but much of what universities produce to justify their work and the investment made in them, such as "glossy brochures", is just "white noise" and not useful.
The next step for the sector is to define university outputs and then find whatever extra data are needed to make the necessary calculations, the report states.
Ms Kelly said that she thought most of the data were already collected and that it was "perfectly feasible" to define all outputs.
Competitive ethics: Charity calls for league table change to aid developing world
A new charity has suggested that the criteria used to compile university league tables should include corporate social responsibility.
The UKHE Charity, established this summer, said that such a move would provide an incentive for universities to give back to developing countries that send large numbers of young people to study in the UK.
It would also address the perception that Western universities view fee-paying foreign students simply as a source of income, and would speed the development of less established education sectors overseas, the charity argues.
The UKHE Charity aims to raise "significant" funds from the sector and support primary and secondary education overseas in the UK's top recruiting countries.
Emma Heathcote, international student recruitment manager at the University of Birmingham and a trustee of the charity, said many firms had embraced corporate social responsibility and benefited from it.
"By introducing [it] within league tables, it would then become a competitive undertaking," she said.
As well as the ethical reasons for supporting children and young people living in poverty, Ms Heathcote said it would also enhance the overseas image of UK universities. "We are committed to building a globally recognised brand for UK higher education and promoting the UK as the only [international student] recruiting country in the world that does so with integrity and gives back to the countries it recruits from," she said.
The ideas put forward by UKHE Charity to help support education in developing countries include asking domestic students, who will pay tuition fees of up to £9,000 a year from next September, to donate a small sum on top of their fees, plus adding an additional cost to the amount universities are charged to attend overseas recruitment fairs.