Some of the world's most influential universities are weighing up how to put a value on their worth before politicians do the same.
Thomas Bjørnholm, pro-rector of the University of Copenhagen and co-chairman of a working group established by the International Alliance of Research Universities, told Times Higher Education that as universities become central to discussions about moving to a knowledge economy, there was a need to measure their value.
"We must do it or someone else will start the discussion for us," said Professor Bjørnholm. "If such measures are valuable, then we as universities will be in a good position if we have been midwives of those metrics, rather than having them imposed."
Other members of the IARU are the universities of Oxford, Cambridge, Peking and Tokyo, ETH Zurich, the National University of Singapore, the Australian National University, Yale University and the University of California, Berkeley.
The working group is looking at ways to systematise attempts at measurement and the pros and cons involved, and will produce a position paper by next year. As well as looking at metrics such as citations, impact factors, graduate wages, patents and impact on the local area, the group is looking to create wider measurements that encompass how these interact, Professor Bjørnholm said.
"We put the research, education, knowledge exchange and collaborative work together in the same pot, the same campus, and this is what creates the special value [of research-intensive universities]. The next step is to say: how do we measure it?"
The process will also consider university "ecosystems" and whether companies that collaborate with universities gain a productivity advantage. Preliminary results from Professor Bjørnholm's institution suggest that they do.
Barry Halliwell, deputy president of the National University of Singapore and co-chairman of the working group, said the danger lay in being over-simplistic. Universities were also using surveys to capture intangible societal contributions and how and over what timescale research leads to societal benefit, he said.
"Our fear is that if it's not a good metric you could use it in all kinds of ways. That's why we're so careful," Professor Bjørnholm added. "Ultimately it would be nice to put some hard facts behind the value."
Some institutions are being blunt about their motivation in looking to calculate their value. A study produced last year by the University of California system, of which Berkeley is a member, said one of its key goals was to frame state funding decisions and reveal "the critical role of UC within the state".