Leaders create system to rank universities’ societal engagement

Senior figures from Chicago, King’s College London and Melbourne say new metrics could be incorporated into global league tables to prove value of higher education

July 22, 2020
students planting trees
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Vice-presidents at three leading universities in the UK, US and Australia have developed a framework to rank institutions’ levels of engagement in a bid to demonstrate the societal value of higher education.

In a new report, Advancing University Engagement: University Engagement and Global League Tables, the leaders say that an updated rankings system is needed to counteract a “corrosive narrative” that pitches universities as disconnected and elitist amid rising educational costs and inequalities.

The authors add that universities’ societal impact is not being adequately assessed, despite it representing their third most significant activity, after education and research.

Last year, Times Higher Education launched a new suite of Impact Rankings, which assess universities against the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals.

The report says that this initiative is “an important step towards greater recognition of university engagement activities”, but calls for “a simpler set of metrics that can be incorporated into global league tables rather than used for a standalone ranking system”.

The study was authored by Derek R. B. Douglas, vice-president of civic engagement and external affairs at the University of Chicago; Jonathan Grant, vice-president and vice-principal (service) at King’s College London; and Julie Wells, vice-president of strategy and culture at the University of Melbourne.

The new framework, which was developed using feedback from the global higher education sector and three pilot studies with 20 universities, includes eight indicators of engagement that the authors say could be incorporated into global league tables.

These are: university commitment to engagement; community opinion of the university, based on a survey; share of pre-university students who participate in a university preparedness or access programme; share of students and staff who participate in volunteering programmes run by the university; research reach outside academic journals, using Altmetric data; share of curriculum dedicated to engagement or service learning and the proportion of students participating in these courses; the proportion of negotiable budget spent on procurement that has a social benefit; and an institution’s carbon footprint.

The authors say they hope that the first indicator, which measures senior leadership commitment to engagement, will prevent the exercise becoming a tick-box approach.

Professor Grant said that there was “a real need for the higher education sector to better demonstrate the myriad benefits it brings to society”, particularly at a time when universities are seeking support from governments and the public to mitigate the impacts of Covid-19.

“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,” he said.


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