Man with a facemask on

Universities are taking community engagement seriously – now we need to measure it

Our Thinking | insight



5 Minute Read


Share insight


When many people think of universities, two functions usually come to mind: education – teaching critical thinking and professional skills – and research – exploring profound and practical questions through critical inquiry.

Both education and research are widely understood, are used as the basis of funding, have professional staff dedicated to their delivery and are measured to compare the performances of universities.

But that is not all universities do. In fact, most people who neither work nor study at a university are far more likely to encounter a university through a third pillar of its activity: Engagement.

Definitions of engagement can differ, but in essence, engagement is an approach to working with partners and communities to create beneficial outcomes for each other and society.

In practical terms it means some initiatives universities have undertaken during COVID-19, like the University of Chicago providing about 300,000 meals to South Side residents, the King’s College London leading research into the prevalence, treatment, and symptoms of COVID-19, and the University of Melbourne supporting people with disabilities to navigate the COVID-19 response.

Engagement is a blind spot in university rankings

Despite engagement being a big and growing part of universities’ activities, little has been done to measure it and compare institutions. Engagement is the blind spot of the major university ranking organisations, including Times Higher Education and QS World University Rankings. Typically, university engagement gets ignored by these ranking services, or the metrics fail to capture performance.

We think there is a chance to do better. Determined to find a way to measure and recognise university engagement, Nous Group has been working with senior representatives of the King’s College London, the University of Chicago and the University of Melbourne to map a path forward.

As our first project, we have developed metrics that can enhance global league tables, because such tables influence university behaviour and resource allocation. The findings from this project are contained in a new report, “Advancing University Engagement: University engagement and global league tables”.

The metrics we have developed result from nearly two years of consultation. We started by developing a theory of change, which explained how possible indicators encouraged the desired behaviours, and conducted multiple pilot studies with universities from North America, Asia, Latin America, the United Kingdom, Australia and Canada to test and refine the behaviours and indicators.

Eight engagement indicators capture what matters

After considering and testing dozens of possible measures of engagement, we have settled on a framework that distills university engagement in eight indicators:

  1. University commitment to engagement: An institution’s commitment to engagement is reflected in strategic documents and in an executive position responsible for these activities.
  2. Community opinion of the university: A survey of a university’s partners (community, not-for-profits, business and government) captures how they view the university and its engagement.
  3. Student access: Measured by the proportion of pre-university students who participate in university preparedness programs, an indication of support for under-represented groups.
  4. Volunteering: Measured by the proportion of students and staff who participate in volunteering/service programs run by the university.
  5. Research reach outside academic journals: Measured by the ratio of non-academic mentions (including citations in grey literature, the media and policy papers) to a university’s total output.
  6. Community-engaged learning within curriculum: Measured by the proportion of curriculum dedicated to engagement learning and the proportion of students participating in these courses.
  7. Socially-responsible purchasing: Measured by the proportion of the university’s negotiable budget that is spent on procurement linked to social benefit.
  8. Carbon footprint: Measured by total metric tons of carbon emissions produced by a university each year.

The framework is simple, applicable to multiple types of universities, can be linked to global league tables (i.e. we can now compare engagement activity) and is linked to a theory of long-term behaviour change. Importantly, we have tested it with partner institutions and know it can work in practice without creating a major compliance burden.

Universities need to take up the challenge

COVID-19 has put an immense funding strain on universities, with revenue from teaching drying up at the same time as governments are reluctant to boost budgets. This has put universities under pressure to define their social impact and to justify their worth.

With some universities characterised as ivory towers, universities need to demonstrate their social value, including the return on investment of public funds. Capturing this value effectively and objectively would be a potent weapon for advocacy.

Many universities understand the importance of engagement. The next step is for institutions to take up the challenge of measuring and encouraging it.

We have identified the next three steps for this project: we will continue to build the case for global rankings to recognise engagement and develop our approach to measuring engagement; we will seek a partner to help us take this project into its next phase; and we will explore platforms to promote university engagement.

We welcome interest from any partner keen to help turn these ideas into reality. The benefits to universities that get on board are great. They can demonstrate the clear value of their engagement work using an objective framework, develop a valuable advocacy tool in connecting with government and other stakeholders, and establish a leadership position in the higher education sector.

King’s College London, the University of Melbourne and the University of Chicago are committed. Who will join us?

Get in touch to discuss how we can work with your organisation to measure and expand engagement.

Prepared with input from Jessica Weereratne during her time as a Director at Nous Group, and our project partners.

Connect with Zac Ashkanasy on LinkedIn.

This article features insights from our new report, ​​“Advancing University Engagement: University engagement and global league tables”.