Re­search fo­cus of global rank­ings a ‘bar­rier’ to com­mu­nity en­gage­ment

League ta­bles must shift em­pha­sis, sum­mit hears. Chris Haver­gal re­ports from Mel­bourne

THE (Times Higher Education) - - NEWS - Chris.haver­gal@timeshigh­ere­d­u­ca­

Uni­ver­sity rank­ings must take fuller ac­count of in­sti­tu­tions’ en­gage­ment with com­mu­ni­ties, industry and pub­lic pol­icy, sec­tor lead­ers have urged.

The Global Uni­ver­sity En­gage­ment Sum­mit, hosted by the Uni­ver­sity of Mel­bourne, heard that higher ed­u­ca­tion in­sti­tu­tions must do more to demon­strate their so­ci­etal value, es­pe­cially in re­sponse to the rise of pop­ulism and the ap­par­ent de­cline of ev­i­dence-based pol­i­cy­mak­ing.

But sev­eral vice-chan­cel­lors said that global league ta­bles, which tend to draw heav­ily on met­rics re­lat­ing to re­search, needed to evolve in or­der for univer­si­ties to be able to shift their fo­cus in this di­rec­tion.

Ian Ja­cobs, vice-chan­cel­lor and pres­i­dent of the Uni­ver­sity of New South Wales, said that it would be dif­fi­cult to ask staff to fo­cus more on en­gage­ment if they were not re­warded for it.

“We’ve got to take our staff on that jour­ney and in or­der to help them on that jour­ney we’ve got to put in place dif­fer­ent ex­pec­ta­tions, dif­fer­ent met­rics and dif­fer­ent rank­ings,” Pro­fes­sor Ja­cobs said. “I do think that the met­rics that we use and the in­ter­na­tional rank­ings are a bar­rier here; we can over­come them, but I do think that they are a bar­rier.”

The sum­mit, held on 21 and 22 September, heard how en­gage­ment cov­ered di­verse ar­eas of univer­si­ties’ ac­tiv­i­ties such as work­ing with de­prived com­mu­ni­ties, sup­port­ing ur­ban re­gen­er­a­tion, col­lab­o­rat­ing with industry on re­search, and lead­ing de­bates on pub­lic pol­icy.

Peter Høj, vice-chan­cel­lor of the Uni­ver­sity of Queens­land and chair of Aus­tralia’s mis­sion group for re­search-in­ten­sive in­sti­tu­tions, the Group of Eight, agreed that rank­ings should give greater weight to these ac­tiv­i­ties.

“We’ve heard a lot about fac­ulty who might not want to get on this jour­ney and, in one sense, I un­der­stand why they are re­luc­tant, be­cause as in­sti­tu­tions we have taken great pride in po­si­tion­ing our­selves in global rank­ings,” Pro­fes­sor Høj said. “What we have to say to peo­ple is that many of those global rank­ings are based on what we can read­ily mea­sure, rather than what we have to learn to mea­sure well.”

Bar­bara Hol­land, a higher ed­u­ca­tion consultant and dis­tin­guished pro­fes­sor of com­mu­nity en­gage­ment at the Uni­ver­sity of Ne­braska, said that meth­ods of start­ing to as­sess the suc­cess of their en­gage­ment ac­tiv­i­ties were start­ing to emerge. But she also ar­gued that rank­ings could al­ready cap­ture univer­si­ties’ en­gage­ment ac­tiv­i­ties, since they of­ten re­sulted in the pub­li­ca­tion of peer-re­viewed pa­pers.

Pro­fes­sor Ja­cobs ar­gued that the need for univer­si­ties to demon­strate their so­ci­etal value was ur­gent be­cause the growth in higher ed­u­ca­tion par­tic­i­pa­tion to the 40 to 50 per cent mark in de­vel­oped so­ci­eties had served to accentuate the divide be­tween those who had a de­gree, and the as­so­ci­ated ben­e­fits in terms of wealth and health, and those who did not.

“I think that univer­si­ties are at least in part re­spon­si­ble for Brexit, [Don­ald] Trump and some of the chal­lenges that we face be­cause we have only gone part of the way through this mas­sive en­gage­ment and im­pact process,” Pro­fes­sor Ja­cobs said. “My pre­dic­tion is that we will also solve it; I think that we will solve it by ed­u­cat­ing 80 to 90 per cent of the pop­u­la­tion to higher ed­u­ca­tion level by the end of the cen­tury.”

Get­ting stuck in so­ci­etal im­pact is a vi­tal mea­sure of univer­si­ties’ suc­cess

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