Measuring social impact allows universities to be held accountable

New THE metrics challenge universities to think about their societal contributions and encourage them to be responsible employers, says Jonathan Grant

March 29, 2019
King's College London
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View the full results of the overall University Impact Rankings 2019

King’s College London has a long and proud history of serving the needs and aspirations of society. In the mid-19th century King’s led the UK in widening access to higher education, by providing subsidised degree-level study through evening classes. As Charles Dickens commented in 1858: “It was an opening not only of college doors, but of doors into higher life.”

Today, more so than ever, all universities worldwide have to keep those doors open.

To do this, the higher education sector needs to change with the times, including rediscovering, and reaffirming, the public purpose of universities. One way of achieving this is to focus on our social impact – the positive effect that we have beyond, as well as through, our traditional missions of education and research. 

A few years ago, we were reflecting on what our vision should be to take us to our 200th anniversary in 2029.  When engaging with our community we consistently heard from our students, staff and alumni how our informal motto “in the service of society” reflected our ethos as a university. We therefore decided to put service alongside education and research as our core academic mission, playing out in the context of London and internationally.

Since then, we have been developing our commitment to service. The journey so far has opened the doors to implement, and celebrate, a range of ideas around becoming a socially responsible institution, and to express and emphasise what we are already doing. This has included our commitment to paying the living wage for all our staff, buying all our directly procured electricity from wind farms, developing a series of undergraduate service-led learning modules and introducing a socially responsible procurement policy.

We were therefore delighted when Times Higher Education announced in September 2018 that it would use the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) as a framework for reporting the social impact of universities. At the time we were already exploring various projects to see how service could be measured by universities at a global level, so this seemed a natural complement to the work that we were doing.

What did we learn from participating in the THE University Impact Rankings?

First, it confirmed and challenged our decision to make service part of our core academic mission. The very fact that others were thinking more broadly about the social impact of universities was reassuring. On the other hand, THE’s use of the SDGs challenged us to think even more broadly about how we considered our social impact.

Second, the rankings gave us the opportunity to pull together data from across the university on the full range of social responsibility activities at King’s, much of which is non-statutory. For example, we have surfaced new stories on cultural and heritage initiatives transferring research to real-life experiences. Our new Science Gallery, which is working to apply cutting-edge scientific research and concepts to the broader London population, is a potent representation of this.

Third, the process highlighted that universities are not just places of learning and research, but are anchor institutions locally, as well as employers. Universities are not just exporters of knowledge and research, but places where people work and live. Collating findings from across the institution will enable us to benchmark our support as an organisation for our staff and reflect further on our role as a responsible employer.

Fourth, participation in the rankings allowed us to be accountable in the future. We are now considering much of the submitted data as part of our Service Strategy Annual Report, which will reflect, to our community at King’s and externally, how we are serving society as a university in the broadest sense. We are now also categorising our service activities by the SDGs, facilitating future reporting.

This is not to say that we found the process easy or felt that the SDGs are necessarily the answer to the intractable issue of how to include social impact in league tables. But, overall, participating in the THE pilot ranking has been a positive experience.

The main motive for participating was to raise the bar at King’s in relation to our responsibility and ability to make a meaningful contribution to society. Seeing how we place against other global institutions is part of fulfilling our ethos for service, being accountable for doing so, and committing to keeping our doors open. 

Jonathan Grant is professor of public policy and vice-president and vice-principal (service) at King’s College London.

The THE University Impact Rankings will be published at 3pm BST on 3 April during the THE Innovation and Impact Summit in South Korea.

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