Commentators around the world are challenging the perception that universities provide public value. Driven by high tuition fees, burdens on the public purse, an entitlement culture in universities and an anti-elitist sentiment more broadly in society, universities often find themselves on the back foot having to defend what they do in utilitarian terms such as value for money, job prospects, graduate salaries, contribution to GDP growth and so on.
But these arguments no longer work. The Brexit vote in the UK is a good example of where political dialogue has moved away from the instrumental and technocratic evidence-based policymaking of the past 30 years, to something that is forming around identity, emotion and inclusiveness. Such a set of values is almost the antithesis to what universities are, but it is critical that, as they navigate this new world, universities adapt and evolve to this new reality otherwise their licence to operate will becoming increasingly tenuous.
This is the journey that we, along with the University of Chicago, are on as three traditional and world recognised universities located in the anglosphere of the United Kingdom, Australia and the United States of America. Independently we have included engagement (or “Service” in King’s language) as part of our academic mission. Here we define “Engagement as a holistic approach to working collaboratively with partners and communities, to create mutually-beneficial outcomes for each other and the benefit of society”.
But one of the challenges we face as leaders of these activities is persuading our colleagues that engagement is an equal partner to education and research in our academic missions. This was a key conclusion that emerged from the 2017 Global University Engagement Summit, hosted by the University of Melbourne that we all participated in. Universities must do more (and indeed have the responsibility and ability) to demonstrate their societal value, particularly in response to rising social inequality and the apparent decline of evidence-based policymaking.
Incorporating engagement into global league tables was seen as a way to recognise current engagement activities, incentivise the sector to do more, and drive long-lasting change.
There is no consensus on how to compare and measure engagement in higher education. As a result, many possible metrics to measure engagement exist. The challenge is to determine the correct suite of metrics that sufficiently capture and reflect an institution’s engagement performance, with relevance across the globe.
To help the process of selecting engagement metrics we have developed a theory of change to articulate the outcomes we would like to see. These include: leadership buy-in, reflected through the institution’s structure and senior endorsement; communities and universities value each other’s contributions; resource allocation decisions reflect commitment to engagement; reward and recognition for staff, faculty and students who participate in engagement activities; and, curriculum and research incorporate engagement activities.
The underpinning assumption is that publicly reporting engagement performance will drive these behaviour changes. By working collaboratively with 18 universities globally we have developed a suite of eight indicators that could drive these behaviours when measured and incorporated in global league tables.
The indicators are clearly a proxy for the sort of activities that we are looking to recognise and incentivise through their measurement but cover a broad remit – ranging from research impact to green energy, from curriculum content to procurement practices. The indicators are currently being piloted and the results will be published in the autumn.
We recognise that measuring engagement is difficult and that not everyone will agree with our pragmatic approach of engaging with global league tables. But we are of the view that while such crude rankings are used then they must evolve to capture the breadth of universities activities and shift the focus to engagement. Recent efforts through THE Impact Rankings are a good step in the right direction.
Our approach is, we would argue, simpler, less burdensome and crucially, university-led. If you would like to be part of this project, feel free to contact us.