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How can you measure the true value of a university?

24 November 2015
Martina Tortis

Martina Tortis

Former Policy Analyst
Universities UK
Graduates from behind
What do the figures £35bn, £45bn, £59bn and £73bn have in common? They are all assessments of the economic impact of higher education on the UK – in UUK reports published in 2002, 2006, 2009 and 2014, respectively.

Each figure is based on the direct and indirect effects of university and student off-campus expenditure on UK output and GDP, jobs and export earnings.  These estimates are based on a robust, bespoke economic impact modelling system which highlights the role of higher education as a high-growth industry in its own right.

Over the years, these figures have been quoted by countless ministers and other politicians of the day, as well as policy makers and other experts. Demonstrating the impact of the higher education sector on the economy and society has therefore become an essential part of Universities UK’s work– particularly around the times of government spending rounds.

Recently, we have started to look at how we can make the reports more accessible to a wider audience too. Last year when we published the latest in the series and for the first time we also created a set of infographics which were shared widely on social media. Given the increasing importance of the issue in recent years, in 2014 we also sought to highlight the huge benefits that international students bring to the local economy.

While this work was rigorous and impactful, we want to ensure our future research in this area keeps in step with the needs of universities and external audiences, and makes use of the latest methodological advances in impact estimation in the UK and around the world.

This also includes ensuring that our future impact work captures the wide-ranging contributions that universities make to the UK economy and society as accurately and as comprehensively as possible. Many institutions have commissioned their own impact assessment studies in recent years, so there’s already a wealth of experience within the higher education sector (as well as in the wider policy and academic community around it) that we can draw on to inform UUK’s work in this area.

This is why we’ve decided to look again at our approach to estimating and communicating the impact of universities. As part of this, we have launched a call for evidence to gather views from UUK members, experts and other interested parties that will help shape our future research agenda in this area. At this stage, we would particularly welcome comments on:
  • what types of university impact we should be looking to capture;
  • how these can be best measured (if at all);
  • whether they can and should be presented as an aggregate figure.
We would also be keen to hear about any international best practice we should be considering, to ensure we can learn from, and match, impact estimation expertise available in other countries.

This isn’t the only time we have attempted to capture some of the other benefits of higher education of course. In 2011 we commissioned a report which found that higher education brought at least £1.31 billion a year in value to UK society in the forms of health and well-being, citizenship and political engagement. The new economics foundation, who we commissioned to do the report, came to the figure using a Social Return on Investment (SROI) and measured activities like student volunteering, social mobility and culture.

For UUK, this is just the first step towards understanding the best way to estimate and present the impact of universities to politicians and policy makers, and to highlight the diversity of strengths across the sector. We plan to continue to share our progress and findings on this project, and create more opportunities to engage with members, experts and the public later this year and throughout 2016.

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