Working with institutions in three countries to advance measurement of university engagement

Working with institutions in three countries to advance measurement of university engagement

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The University of Chicago, King’s College London and the University of Melbourne – our partner universities on this project – are world-class universities on the forefront of community engagement in their respective countries.

Civic engagement was underappreciated and not measured

The three partner universities were each undertaking extensive community engagement activities, ranging from supplying meals to local people in need to gathering community data on disease spread and supporting people with disability to access services.

Despite these efforts, engagement was not included in the main global ranking systems when assessing the overall performance of a university, impacting the investment profile of the civic agenda. The universities were seeking guidance on a systemic way to measure university engagement – to elevate its importance and track it alongside teaching and research – in evaluations of university performance in ‘global league tables’.

Ranking metrics required close consultation with universities

The three partner universities and Nous knew that any metrics to rank university engagement would need to be developed in close consultation with the universities that would later use them.

Across nearly two years, the partner universities and Nous worked extensively with a broad suite of universities across the globe in three stages:

  1. Set foundations. We undertook global consultations with experts to define the characteristics of engagement and developed a theory of change to demonstrate how we would incentivise institutional engagement.
  2. Pilot studies. We conducted three pilot studies to test, refine and validate engagement metrics with universities around the world, including testing thinking with students and community groups and modelling potential impact on current league tables of university performance.
  3. Develop proposition. We developed a framework to measure and compare engagement and investigated options to partner with other organisations that publish league tables.

The resulting framework included eight engagement indicators: university commitment, community opinion, student access, volunteering, research reach outside academic journals, community-engaged learning, socially responsible purchasing and carbon footprint. For each indicator we developed a clear description, the required behaviour change and suitable metric.

The cycle of intended sectoral behavioural change can be seen here:

Round colourful wheel with arrows
Round colourful wheel with arrows

Our report is influencing global debate

The report, “Advancing University Engagement: University engagement and global league tables”, was released publicly in 2020 and attracted global interest from the higher education sector and media.

It is serving to catalyse broader debate about university engagement, to encourage universities across the globe to adopt a holistic approach to engagement, to globally rank current engagement activities and to influence global rankings.

You can read more about the report’s findings on our website.

What other organisations can learn from the three partner universities

Achieving systemic change requires measuring performance to allow for comparison and improvement.

Metrics that seek to change behaviour need to be grounded in an understanding of the drivers of activity.

Universities around the world operate in a variety of contexts so need to be engaged in developing tools that are designed for them.