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Universities Must Demonstrate Value to Society: Report

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In response to widespread criticism that universities have become dissociated with societal needs, a new report recommends that universities be ranked based on their level of engagement with communities.

The report, titled Advancing University Engagement, was released earlier this week and argues that universities need to improve showing their value to society.

It encourages universities to adopt a holistic approach to engagement and influence global rankings to recognize university engagement. It also outlined how university engagement can impact critical issues facing society, such as public health, safety, and development.

Authored by three university vice-presidents – Derek Douglas (University of Chicago), Julie Wells (University of Melbourne,) and Jonathan Grant (King’s College London) – the report states that university engagement can be measured and ranked on a global scale.

Universities are the anchor institutions in their communities and have the ability to make a tremendous positive impact, said co-author Douglas in a release to King’s College. “The framework proposed in this report is a concrete way to measure that impact and encourage universities to invest further in engagement when societal needs are most compelling.”

Framework for University Engagement

The report argues that current global university rankings can be made accurate by incorporating engagement indicators to depict an inclusive picture of the university.

To influence these ranking systems, the report prescribes a framework based on eight indicators:

  1. University commitment to engagement
  2. Community opinion of the university
  3. Student access
  4. Volunteering
  5. Research reach outside academic journals
  6. Community-Engaged Learning within the curriculum
  7. Socially-responsible purchasing
  8. Carbon footprint

On these eight parameters, behavioral changes in universities will be measured, for instance how communities and universities value each other, how research allocation decisions are, and how changes in curriculum reflect engagement. 

Once universities are to be ranked on these engagement aspects, they will ensure more activities benefit local communities and civic society, the report added. 

Challenges and Limitations

The authors see challenges ahead. Measuring and comparing engagement is complex, especially on a global scale. Additionally, global university league tables are highly opaque, volatile, and influenced by prestige. Universities engaging only to drive their performance without any intrinsic interest or regard of the framework is another challenge.

The report seeks to build the case for conversations on engagement internationally, the possibility of a partnership with like-minded influencers, and how resources can be rolled out to meet framework requirements. 

The project had more than 20 universities participating in pilot studies.

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