Universities should be ranked on societal impact to justify their worth – report

Universities should justify their worth through a ranking system that assesses their impact on society to counteract the “corrosive narrative” that institutions are “disconnected ivory towers”, a report says.

A new assessment system that recognises societal benefits may reassure students they are getting value for money and incentivise institutions to do more for communities, university representatives suggest.

Universities should be graded in global league tables on the proportion of their negotiable budget spent on activities for social benefit, as well as on their carbon footprint, according to a report from King’s College London (KCL), the University of Chicago and the University of Melbourne.

Institutions’ engagement should also be assessed by their support for underrepresented groups, as measured by the proportion of pre-university students who take part in an “access” programme.

The authors propose a new framework to measure and rank this societal impact, or what they term “engagement”, which they argue could be incorporated into global university league tables.

Doing so would spur universities to ensure more of their activities benefit local communities and wider society, while better showcasing the existing benefits they produce, the report argues.

It adds: “Many universities are characterised as disconnected ivory towers, with many people questioning whether universities are contributing their fair share.”

Professor Jonathan Grant, vice president and vice principal (service) at KCL, said: “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.”

Nick Hillman, director of the Higher Education Policy Institute (Hepi), said: “We need more rankings, not fewer, if we are to capture the rich diversity of our sector more accurately. Such a new measure of societal value to complement existing measures would be very interesting to see.”

But Jo Grady, general secretary of the University and College Union (UCU), said: “Universities are about so much more than simple rankings that focus on things like graduate earnings, and a wider recognition of their work and impact should be encouraged.

“However, the obsession with chasing rankings of any stripe is a result and failure of attempts to let the market drive higher education. It is more important for universities to work together at this time to demonstrate higher education’s many benefits, not seek to compete against each other.”

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