How can we measure universities’ contribution to society?

The challenge of assessing the impact of university social responsibility programmes came under the spotlight at the recent University Social Responsibility (USR) Summit, on ‘Education and Action for a Sustainable Future’, with speakers highlighting the need for greater emphasis on measuring universities’ contribution to the public good.

The USR Summit, a biennial flagship event of the USR Network, comprising 20 member institutions, was hosted by the Hong Kong Polytechnic University from 16-18 November, its aim being “to nurture and guide generations of new leaders who will drive social change”.

For universities to be such drivers of social change, there needs to be a better system to assess the social responsibility work of universities.

In a plenary session titled ‘Assessing and Reinforcing USR Impacts’, the discussion focused on whether universities have the right methods and frameworks to capture, incentivise and reward universities’ social and economic impacts.

Increasing attention is being focused by university ranking organisations on social impact and sustainability, reflecting growing interest in higher education’s contribution to tackling climate change and all the global and local challenges addressed by the internationally agreed United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Panellist Phil Baty, chief knowledge officer at Times Higher Education (THE), which publishes the annual THE World University Rankings and the THE Impact Rankings, flagged up the pressure for relevant changes in the university rankings landscape.

Baty argued that there was now a reckoning in store for higher education, with politicians – especially in the United States and the United Kingdom – asking what universities do for society.

“Our world rankings have been the benchmark for measuring the global standards for teaching and research outputs,” he claimed, “but I think it’s time for a destruction of the landscape of [the] university ranking system.”

A challenge laid bare

The time is right for universities to look anew at how they contribute towards the public good, a challenge that was laid bare by the impact of the pandemic on societies, he said.

The SDGs provide a new focus to examine how universities serve society and a recent THE survey indicated that 82% of students believe that universities have a role to shape the future of sustainable development.

Baty said THE is embarking on a process of turning their rankings towards measuring social and economic impacts of higher education and research on society.

He pointed to the THE Impact Rankings system, which captured global attention when it was launched in 2019. It looks at data on university research outcomes that can be clustered into each of the 17 SDGs and involves 1,524 universities from 110 countries.

“We are looking at what they are doing in promoting the SDGs – in terms of policies, jobs and university engagement; we are looking at stewardship of campuses [in this area],” he said, adding that the criteria also include how teaching is creating the next generation of graduates that will understand and apply their knowledge to drive the Agenda for Sustainable Development.

THE’s website says it uses indicators to provide comparisons across four broad areas of research, stewardship (of physical and human resources), outreach (or work with local, regional, national or international communities) and teaching.

The data is supplied by the universities. To participate they only have to supply data related to SDG 17 (Partnerships for the goals) and three other SDGs.

For each SDG covered, the metrics are derived from research data supplied by Elsevier and evidence of policies and initiatives, particularly best practice examples, supplied by the universities, plus a variety of ‘continuous metrics’ measuring contributions to impact, including for example the number of graduates with health-related degrees.

Two new sustainability rankings launched

Recently, in October, rival global ranking organisation QS Quacquarelli Symonds released its QS World University Rankings: Sustainability 2023 rankings, based on environmental and social impact.

The QS environmental impact metric has three performance indicators: institutions, education and research. Sustainable education draws 20% of the weighted points, while the sustainable institutions indicator is weighted at 17.5% and sustainable research at 12.5%.

The QS social impact metric has five indicators: equality, knowledge exchange, impact on education, employability and opportunities, as well as quality of life. Equality was accorded 15% of the total weighted points, while knowledge exchange, impact on education and employability and opportunities indicators were each weighted at 10%, and quality of life at 5%.

Most recently, on 16 November, non-profit organisation launched its University Ranking, which it claims offers “a new higher education framework” to assess key stakeholders in higher education institutions worldwide on integrity, values-driven leadership and sustainability commitment” and moves away from reliance on secondary data, including the number of publications.

In this fledgling ranking (for which University World News is the media partner), students are evaluated on which of the following learning, social and aspirational experiences – teaching, assessment, skills development, social experiences and aspirations – resulted in stronger commitment to integrity and pursuing sustainability activities.

For staff, asked them to assess the following: investments in internal environment, an institute’s values and overall staff satisfaction. The metrics were employed to determine which metric had the most influence in securing staff commitment to contributing to the success of the institute.

Recognition for community engagement

At the USR Summit, panellist Dr Marisol Morales, executive director of Carnegie Elective Classifications, explained that the Carnegie Foundation’s new system for colleges and universities in the US to gain recognition for institutionalising community engagement uses the guiding principles of a deep commitment to public purpose at institutional level that is elevated to teaching, learning and scholarly missions.

“This would involve continuous institutional transformation and people-centric systems change,” she said.

“Community engagement involves collaboration between institutions of higher education and their larger communities,” said Morales, “… a mutual beneficial exchange of knowledge and resources in a context of partnership and reciprocity.”

Addressing Western bias in rankings

Asked by University World News how THE’s SDG-focused Impact Rankings address the criticism that existing rankings are too Western-centric, Baty said the criteria adopted for the Impact Rankings system and the results of recent surveys indicate that the new model is a much fairer one.

He also pointed to the release by THE – on the same day as the panel debate – of the latest iteration of its ranking based entirely on academic excellence reputations, the World Reputation Rankings 2022, which he said “shows there is a huge change … We see Tokyo rising and so is Singapore, South Korea and many universities in China in particular are rising. So we are seeing a change in traditional rankings”.

“With this new impact ranking we are also starting to see a radical change, because it gives lower priority to traditional applications that favour Western academics. There’s also less weight on prestige … [and] it’s becoming diverse with as much focus on East Asia,” said Baty.

Morales said it was good to see the class structure of institutions “unravelling”. She said higher education institutions from different levels could compete on a similar playing field to judge their impacts on society. “That could change the higher education landscape [and] the more we look towards collaborations … that will be for the better.”