Salford University's "community banks" have loaned nearly £3 million to people from deprived backgrounds who would otherwise have fallen prey to loan sharks.
The initiative is one of 55 projects intended to improve universities'
links with their local communities and provide them with a new set of performance measures for such activities.
The projects are being monitored by Upbeat, a consortium of 11 European universities led by Salford.
As part of the community banking project, Salford acts as an "honest broker" between commercial banks, local authorities and regional development agencies to set up what it calls "community reinvestment trusts", which lend the money.
The trusts offer low-interest loans to people living in Salford, Portsmouth, Blackburn and Derby who would otherwise be refused credit by most commercial lenders.
A total of £2.7 million has been loaned since the first trust was set up some four years ago.
Karl Dayson, project manager, said that research work to develop the idea first began in the late 1990s when it became clear that commercial banks were no longer willing to serve people from some deprived groups. Loan sharks and pawnbrokers moved in to fill the gap in the market.
"Most of the client group in question did not wish to borrow a lot of money, but they were so poor that any slight change in their circumstances would have tipped their budget over the edge," he said.
"We saw that we could act as a broker between local and commercial partners to create trusts that could loan money for a range of purposes, including small enterprises such as setting up a window-cleaning business.
Dr Dayson added: "Universities have a civic responsibility to the community in which they are based.
"What we are doing is developing social enterprises that may have no financial benefit to the institution, but bring huge cultural and social benefits, as well as adding academic impetus to what we do."
Proper measurement of such activities will increase universities' chances of grant money from the funding councils.
James Powell, pro vice-chancellor of Salford, said that four performance indicators or measures of success had been developed that could be used by institutions to drive progress in this area of work and also to support bids for funding council grants.
The measures include how well a project or area of activity works as a business; to what extent it enhances and develops the performance of individuals; the level of networking involved and whether this leads to sustained partnerships; and the quality of strategic goal-setting, based on a thorough analysis of problems and opportunities.
The Higher Education Funding Council for England's business in the community committee, on which Professor Powell sits, has set up a working group to look at the proposals in detail.