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New report calls for better recognition of the public value of universities

A report by King’s, the University of Chicago and the University of Melbourne highlights the importance of measuring, recognising and valuing universities’ impact on society

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A new report by King’s College London, the University of Chicago and the University of Melbourne argues that universities need to better demonstrate their value to society.

Universities around the world are making a positive impact through engagement but, unlike teaching and research, this is rarely recognised or celebrated.

The report, Advancing University Engagement: University engagement and global league tables, recommends that societal impact should be recognised in university rankings.

It proposes a new framework to measure and rank this impact, or ‘engagement’, which could be incorporated into global university league tables.

This would encourage universities to ensure more of their activities benefit local communities and wider society, while better showcasing the existing benefits they produce.

The report was written by Professor Jonathan Grant, Vice-President and Vice-Principal (Service) at King’s, in collaboration with Dr Julie Wells, Vice-President, Strategy & Culture at The University of Melbourne and Derek R.B Douglas, Vice President, Civic Engagement & External Affairs at the University of Chicago, with international consultancy firm Nous Group. It is based on expert input, feedback from consultations with students and university staff around the world, and three pilot studies with 20 universities.

At a time when universities in many countries are seeking support from governments and taxpayers to mitigate the impacts of COVID-19, there is a real need for the higher education sector to better demonstrate the myriad benefits it brings to society. 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.– Professor Jonathan Grant, Vice-President and Vice-Principal (Service), King’s College London

‘Universities are often the anchor institutions in their communities and as such they have the ability to make a tremendous positive impact,’ said Derek R.B. Douglas, Vice President of Civic Engagement and External Affairs at the University of Chicago. ‘The framework this report is proposing would provide a concrete way to measure that impact and encourage universities to not only invest further in engagement at a time when societal needs are most pressing, but also make it central to their identity as an institution.’

The report argues that the global response to the COVID-19 pandemic has cast a spotlight on the importance of universities’ civic engagement. Higher education institutions across the world have mobilised to support their communities, as well as conducting valuable research and engaging with governments, NGOs and industry.

The consortium defines engagement as ‘a holistic approach to working collaboratively with partners and communities to create mutually beneficial outcomes for each other and for the benefit of society’.

King’s has adopted the term Service to describe our commitment to society both through and beyond the university’s traditional roles of education and research.

Under this banner, King’s delivers initiatives highlighted in the report, like the King’s Sanctuary Programme, which creates educational opportunities for forced migrants whose education has been disrupted by conflict; King’s Civic Challenge, which brings together local charities with students and staff to co-create lasting solutions to local challenges; and the Civic Leadership Academy, a new programme pairing London charities with teams of undergraduates to address the strategic problems they face.

Dr Julie Wells, Vice-President, Strategy & Culture at the University of Melbourne, said, 'Universities take an active role in the intellectual, cultural, social and economic lives of their communities. This is understood across campuses globally, reflected by policymakers and felt by university constituents, though remains conspicuously absent in global conversations about excellence. This project is designed to advance our thinking about how universities might demonstrate the value of engagement, and, with more than 20 universities participating in pilot studies, it has provided some great learnings about how different universities around the world are creating value in partnership with their communities.'

Zac Ashkanasy, Principal, Nous Group said, 'Our contact with universities around the world has shown there is ground-breaking work happening in community engagement but often this does not get the recognition it deserves. This report shows how engagement can be measured and institutions compared, which will be a vital tool for universities in discussions with funders, communities and prospective students.'