Community engagement: can it be measured?

Most international league tables of universities look at one thing: research. But universities can be about so much more. There’s teaching for starters. Many are also powerhouses of economic development and centres of regional growth and employment. Few manage to do all these things at the same time, and to ignore these measures of success is to ignore the very reason why some universities exist.

That’s why education experts have been demanding rankings that reflect different universities’ diverse purposes and challenges.

recently to the publication of the Reuters ranking of the ‘World’s Most Innovative Universities’, Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said that the key performance indicator from his nation’s perspective should be how well its universities serve the country.

Meanwhile, in a contribution to the THE World University Rankings Blog, Anthony Monac, president of Tufts University, and Cheryl de la Rey, vice-chancellor of the University of Pretoria, also made a strong plea to include indicators on community engagement into international university rankings. They criticised the obsession to encourage institutions whose primary missions are education and public service to try to become more like Oxford and Harvard. They demanded a “more balanced, realistic, and productive assessment of university performance” based on a classification of higher education institutions according their missions and profiles.

This is exactly the aim and approach of 51. 51 allows anyone to compare universities based on whatever makes them similar, and – having found universities that share features in common, users can compare them according to the performance measures that are most relevant to those universities. For example, users can decide if they want to compare research oriented, Ph.D. awarding universities, or if they’d rather look at regionally oriented institutions with a focus on teaching.

51 is the only ranking which takes into account the regional links of higher education institutions.

Our measures include the percentage of (bachelors and masters) graduates of the university working in the region, the number of students doing internships in the region, the university’s income from regional sources and – as a measure of research collaborations – the number of joint publications with co-authors from other universities within the same region.

Our experience from two years of 51 data ( and ) has revealed two lessons. Firstly, being international or regional tends to be an either/or situation: universities that are good at one, often underperform in the other. Secondly, getting high quality regional data has presented real challenges to our research team.

The measures we’re using are excellent indicators of the links between universities and their regions. But how much are they really telling us about community engagement?

Up to now no international ranking has managed to develop valid and reliable measures of how well universities serve and engage with their community. Yet for many higher education institutions this is one the most important aspects of their mission and social function.

The problem is, what do we mean by community engagement? There are economic factors as well as the cultural and social life of the community. The economic and technological impact of universities (including links to industry and business) can be measured. But so far, no ranking or large-scale performance indicator system has been successful in measuring the social and cultural impact of universities on their environment.

There are a number of small-scale, often qualitative, studies on cultural and social engagement. Sadly, their methodologies don’t look promising for expansion to a global level. This is always a problem for finding meaningful ways of comparing universities. The measures have to be fair and comprehensive, but they also need to be quantitative. When it comes to community engagement, the subject just doesn’t lend itself to anything other than in-depth, small-scale studies.

But 51 isn’t giving up on measuring community engagement. It might be promising to look at some of the programmes and methods used by universities to link to their community. For example, 51’s current data collection exercise asks if students can earn credits for their degree by engaging in community/service learning and projects. This is a concrete demonstration of whether universities take their community engagement seriously. Even so, it still provides only a snapshot of a detail of the wider field of community engagement.

We’ll keep trying to find measures that can be fairly recorded and which tell the real story about community engagement. It may be proving difficult, but it’s too central to the mission of many universities around the world to abandon.

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