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Social return from universities

21 December 2015
Paul Manners

Paul Manners

National Coordinating Centre for Public Engagement
Happy students standing outside a traditional university building

It is all too tempting when trying to describe the impact of universities to resort to monetary measures – and these can be very powerful.

In the recent CSR, the Chancellor had clearly been impressed by the arguments made by the Arts sector when he decided to protect their budgets.  He called the arts “one of the best investments we can make as a nation”, and took delight in explaining that £1bn a year in grants leads to “a quarter of a trillion pounds to the economy – not a bad return”.

We need to take the challenge of describing universities’ economic impact seriously – but in chasing economic return as the only credible measure of our value, we risk failing to acknowledge the many other ways in which universities contribute to society. The evidence is clear: economic return is only one part of the picture. The recent REF case studies were categorised by researchers at KCL and only 6% had economic impact as their main outcome.

That said, it would be short sighted not to engage thoughtfully with the appetite for numbers and pound signs.  The NCCPE commissioned economist Ian McNicol and Ursula Kelly in 2011 to test out ‘Socially Modified Economic Valuation’ (SMEV) which starts from the premise that anything a university does can be assigned a monetary value – for instance assigning a ‘market’ price to a free public lecture. This is standard practice in many areas of public life, with the Treasury’s Green Book providing a detailed list of such measures. What SMEV enables us to recognise is the challenge in assessing the value of different commodities or services based on their social desirability. By considering if there are particular kinds of interaction with society which we think are of greater value than others, for instance – reaching particular ‘excluded’ communities, the figures are ‘socially modified’ to reflect this higher value. SMEV is slowly gaining traction, and several universities have adapted the methodology to review their impact and to enrich the stories they can convincingly tell about their contribution to society.

In parallel, the REF has forced everyone to turn their attention to evidencing the impact of research – one critical area where universities are now being expected to account for how they ‘make a difference’. We are currently mining the REF case study database for insight into how well the sector has responded to the challenge. The results are striking: they convey a vivid picture of a very engaged sector – with nearly half of the case studies evidencing some attempt to engage with the public, in many cases to disseminate the results, but with a significant proportion engaging in more meaningful encounters.

The case studies are notably rich in articulating the engagement activities people undertook – but much less convincing at offering evidence of the difference that engagement made – particularly when the impacts were in areas such as shifting understanding or influencing public debate.  Exactly the same challenge we now face in trying to decide upon credible measures of student learning to underpin the TEF.  As the sector reflects on this – there are a couple of things that might help.

We need to get better at analysing the processes that bring research and teaching to life – and describing how they change people, and create new possibilities.  The best way to do this is to get better at evaluation – and to draw on the considerable body of knowledge about this.  A great place to start is with the ESRC’s work in this area. A core focus of the NCCPE’s work is to support people to develop their skills in this area.

And we need to remember that there are no magic bullets that will ever replace the need to open up conversations to negotiate the value of what we do.  We need to be more open, transparent and lucid about our work, what quality looks like and why we think it matters – and to be interested in the sense this makes to other people. We need to understand their priorities and values and find ways to connect with them – not just assume they will be convinced by the things that make sense to us.

If each of us who work and study in HE had 3 conversations this week with people about our work, we’d not only build understanding of the sector but we’d also learn a lot about how others value our work and probably gather some really useful insight to help us do our work better. Not such a lot to ask – especially if it helps avoid ending up in a world where only those things that can be measured in monetary terms matter.

The call for UUK’s survey on the impact of higher education will remain open until Friday 15th January and we encourage all those with experience of assessing the impact of universities to let us know their thoughts.

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