University rankings ‘must give greater recognition’ to engagement

University rankings must take fuller account of institutions’ engagement with communities, industry and public policy, sector leaders have urged.

The Global University Engagement Summit, hosted by the University of Melbourne, heard that higher education institutions must do more to demonstrate their societal value, especially in response to the rise of populism and the apparent decline of evidence-based policymaking.

But several vice-chancellors said that global league tables, which tend to draw heavily on metrics relating to research, needed to evolve in order for universities to be able to shift their focus in this direction.

Ian Jacobs, vice-chancellor and president of the University of New South Wales, said that it would be difficult to ask staff to focus more on engagement if they were not rewarded for it.

“We’ve got to take our staff on that journey and in order to help them on that journey we’ve got to put in place different expectations, different metrics and different rankings,” Professor Jacobs said. “I do think that the metrics that we use and the international rankings are a barrier here; we can overcome them, but I do think that they are a barrier.”

The summit, held on 21 and 22 September, heard how engagement covered diverse areas of universities’ activities such as working with deprived communities, supporting urban regeneration, collaborating with industry on research, and leading debates on public policy.

Peter Høj, vice-chancellor of the University of Queensland and chair of Australia’s mission group for research-intensive institutions, the Group of Eight, agreed that rankings should give greater weight to these activities.

“We’ve heard a lot about faculty who might not want to get on this journey and, in one sense, I understand why they are reluctant, because as institutions we have taken great pride in positioning ourselves in global rankings,” Professor Høj said. “What we have to say to people is that many of those global rankings are based on what we can readily measure, rather than what we have to learn to measure well.”

Barbara Holland, a higher education consultant and distinguished professor of community engagement at the University of Nebraska, said that methods of starting to assess the success of their engagement activities were starting to emerge. But she also argued that rankings could already capture universities’ engagement activities, since they often resulted in the publication of peer-reviewed papers.

Professor Jacobs argued that the need for universities to demonstrate their societal value was urgent because the growth in higher education participation to the 40 to 50 per cent mark in developed societies had served to accentuate the divide between the those who had a degree, and the associated benefits in terms of wealth and health, and those who did not.

“I think that universities are at least in part responsible for Brexit, [Donald] Trump and some of the challenges that we face because we have only gone part of the way through this massive engagement and impact process,” Professor Jacobs said. “My prediction is that we will also solve it; I think that we will solve it by educating 80 to 90 per cent of the population to higher education level by the end of the century.”

chris.havergal@timeshighereducation.com

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