How can universities increase their civic impact in the face of COVID-19?

How can universities increase their civic impact in the face of COVID-19?


Universities are essential to the global response to COVID-19: Researchers are testing potential cures and other academics in health, economics and behavioural science are working with governments, NGOs and businesses to solve the immediate problems and to find solutions for the medium- and long-term. With a recession anticipated, higher education’s human capital-building will be essential for upskilling or reskilling millions of people.

At the same time, universities are facing enormous challenges from the abrupt shift to all-online learning and from substantial revenue loss. In the UK, an annual £2.5 billion loss in tuition fees is likely across the sector.[1] In Australia, a A$19 billion shortfall over the next three years has been predicted due to lost international student revenue.[2]

Governments around the world have responded to support the sector and to protect students. In some jurisdictions, universities have been low on the list of organisations for government support. For example, the UK Government is split on the need for a university bailout[3] and in Australia there appears to be only limited relief.[4]

How can these points be reconciled? Universities need to demonstrate to their wider beneficiaries – including local communities, regional businesses, national politicians – that what they do and how they do it is valuable now and long into the future.

We know universities are valuable for many stakeholders – as employers, as providers of community services, as educators and as researchers. As institutions facing financial black holes, they must safeguard their futures.

To reconcile these challenges, universities can increase their civic impact despite the changes forced by COVID-19. Now is the time to invest in civic impact to help communities and to preserve the place of universities in society.

Measuring universities’ impact is important

Universities need stories to communicate to their publics about their work and their impact. Institutions need to show the economic and social impact of their graduates, their research and their operations. These are important for setting out a university’s scale and reach. Further, a better narrative can communicate the breadth of their civic impact.

Measuring universities’ impact is valuable in enabling institutions to tell stories about why their work matters for communities – now, perhaps, more than ever. For example, Times Higher Education’s “Impact Rankings 2020” judges university performance against proxies for the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).[5] As with all rankings, there are challenges in dispassionately assessing performance and providing opportunities for nuanced articulation of universities’ diverse impacts.

Many Australasian universities performed well, with the University of Auckland topping the table. THE’s measures tend to privilege larger institutions: all institutions in the top 10 had between 30,000 and 66,000 students. The success of Australasian universities – with five of the top 10 – also reflects that the higher education systems’ regulations and incentives promote impact.

While this can be celebrated, there is also a need the tell stories about universities’ wider range of positive impacts: for example, the University of Lincoln has pioneered economic and social regeneration in what two decades ago was a higher education ‘cold spot’.

Rankings quantify and compare performance, but they are only part of what is needed for universities – individually and collectively – to articulate their ‘so what?’.

Leaders are stepping up to meet the challenge of COVID-19

Behind the numbers on impact, universities’ stories about what they do and why they are important can greatly increase their esteem. This can help influencers and policymakers to see them as a key part of the solution to the problems society faces.

Strong but humble leadership – at individual universities and across the sector – is essential. University executive teams have taken pay cuts to support institutional finances and students. For example, Melbourne’s La Trobe University executive took a 20 per cent pay cut, as the institution confronts the loss of at least one-seventh of its revenue,[6] and the University of Manchester has signalled a similar pay cut.[7]

The financial situation universities face means jobs will likely be lost; senior leaders cannot ignore the impact on individuals and communities and need to minimise harm.

The difficult decision to scale back a university’s operations will likely lead to closing civic-orientated activities, discipline areas, professional services functions and delivery locations. For each, universities can minimise the damage to academics, students and communities. It is necessary to focus efforts on what is distinctive about an institution and aligning it to the requirements of each location. This will ensure that reduced activity does not deprive communities of key resources.

The challenges ahead offer opportunities for creativity in how universities work together. Some may rationalise what they do by making multiple institutions stronger rather than cutting each of them. In this way, specialising may be a route to sustainability and universities can work together to align resources.

Thoughtful organisational transformation can help explain decisions to communities and show the long-term benefits of planned changes.

Six ways universities can demonstrate positive impact

Universities are essential to solving our current health, economic and social crises. They can demonstrate their positive impact, outside of teaching and research, in several ways.

External activities:

  • Generously share the expertise of academics and professionals with governments, other organisations and individuals in need. This may include seconding academic staff into other sectors.
  • Leverage convening power to make universities an essential service for wider recovery, particularly in local communities, and in vulnerable communities internationally.
  • Seek out novel collaborations across institutions, sectors and geographies to work more efficiently and have greater positive impact. For example, set social procurement benchmarks to support vulnerable communities.

Internal activities:

  • Executives and high-paid staff take more financial pain. Demonstrate that senior leaders – who have benefitted most from good times in the past – take a greater share of the pain than junior or more vulnerable staff.
  • Increase university preparedness programmes for undergraduate cohorts and make postgraduate application processes more equitable.
  • Make business choices to serve the local community. Adopt socially responsible purchasing policies to create real impact. For example, some universities have procurement policies that prioritise local enterprises.

When universities demonstrate their positive social impact, individual institutions and whole sector can transition from a crisis to long-term stability.

While many universities face challenging decisions, this is the time to increase their civic role to ensure communities benefit and public support continues long into the future.

Get in touch to discuss how we can help your university measure and communicate its civic function.

Connect with Zac Ashkanasy and Jessica Weereratne on LinkedIn.

Prepared with input from Ant Bagshaw and Sophie O’Connor.

[1] Impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on university finances: Report for the University and College Union, London Economics, April 2020

[2] Australian investment in education: Higher Education, Mitchell Institute and Victoria University, 2020

[3] Ministers split over bailout package for universities, The Guardian, 23 April 2020

[4] Little relief in Australian bailout, Times Higher Education, 14 April 2020, and Emergency support for Victoria’s international students, Victorian Government, 29 April 2020

[5] THE Impact Rankings 2020: results announced, Times Higher Education, 22 April 2020

[6] La Trobe’s senior leadership team takes a voluntary 20% salary reduction, La Trobe University, April 2020

[7] COVID-19 financial implications for The University of Manchester, University of Manchester, 23 April 2020