The attempt to quantify the sector's unseen value takes into account such factors as health and well-being, "citizenship" and political engagement. Compiled for Universities UK by the new economics foundation (NEF), the report, Degrees of value: how universities benefit society, measures the "social return on investment" in an attempt to put cash values on societal outcomes.
It says it is "an initial attempt to evoke discussion about the broader public contributions from the diverse ways in which everyone profits from the university sector".
Faiza Shaheen, the author of the report and an economist at the NEF thinktank, argues that universities need to become more vocal about the public value they deliver.
"Everyone knows that higher education is essential for a thriving economy," she said. "But universities deliver much more than just economic benefit to the UK. They've been helping to build a 'Big Society' long before the current concept had been conceived."
In addition to sector-wide value, the report focuses on two case studies, at Manchester Metropolitan University and the University of Warwick, to showcase how the concept translates at the local level.
Manchester Met's commitment to widening participation was singled out by the study: "When including the economic benefits of an increase in the number of graduates in the economy, (it) contributes £147.2 million to society a year."
Warwick's mentoring scheme Warwick Volunteers was estimated to contribute £954,000 annually to the local community, while the Warwick Arts Centre benefits the area to the sum of £.7 million a year.
The findings were discussed at a roundtable event on 15 June chaired by Ann Mroz, editor of Times Higher Education, and organised by UUK and the National Coordinating Centre for Public Engagement.