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    Deep impact

    The world is on fire. Chris Strods asks is the higher education sector prepared to pick up the hose?

    The modern university commonly understands itself to be a ‘social enterprise’, committed to achieving social goods while maintaining an ostensibly market-driven commercial operating model. This is, to varying degrees, true. The provision of education to the masses and creation of knowledge to improve the world, two fundamental goals of all universities, can easily be argued as an inherent social good. 

    It hasn’t always been this way. 

    In 1652, the inaugural graduating class of Harvard University featured just nine scholars, all white men, whose degrees were conferred in order of “the rank their families held in society”. An extreme example, but a demonstration of just how far higher education has come: from the university as a walled garden, serving primarily as an incubator for the elites of tomorrow, to the university as a tool for promoting social advancement in the spirit of egalitarianism. 

    Theoretically, this social advancement occurs at both an individual level, providing academic enrichment and a potential pathway into the professional class for scholars of all social strata, as well as at a wider societal level, putting the globe’s best minds to the task of solving the crises our world faces. 

    Whether it’s improving educational outcomes, bringing people out of poverty, maintaining a liveable climate for our children, or any other of the world’s many and varied problems, the exercise of creating this change is increasingly boiled down to just a couple of words: Social Impact. 

    Not just a buzzword 

    It’s quite a burden for just two words to encompass such lofty and far-reaching aims, but it’s what we’ve chosen, and it’s here to stay. Given this, it’s important that we take stock of what is meant when we talk about impact, what it encompasses, how we measure it and how we know we’re creating it. The Centre for Social Impact, a research collective which counts a number of Australian universities as members, offers a simple definition: 

    Social impact can be defined as the net effect of an activity on a community and the well-being of individuals and families. 

    This definition, while neat and simple, is abstract enough to hint at vastly more complex realisations of the idea, and a degree of uncertainty about the meaning behind social impact. Anecdotally, whether an activity qualifies as social impact is often a case of ‘you know if when you see it’. 

    Operationally, perhaps the most widely recognised actualisation of the social impact concept is the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals, a set of 17 overarching themes, each encompassing 8-12 ‘targets’ with their own set of individual indicators for measuring each. 

    Goal number 4, “Ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all”, is most obviously relevant to the higher education sector; providing quality education is core business. However, there are 16 other goals, and the sector must play a role in addressing each of them. The problem is not knowing where to start. 

    Flying Blind 

    Even with an agreeable definition of social impact and a broadly accepted framework for understanding it, we’re left with one big question: how do we measure it? 

    The 2021 QS Institutional Data Usage Report, which presented the results of a mixed-mode global survey of academics and administrators, revealed that many institutions are currently grappling with this challenge. They have identified an institutional appetite for increasing their social impact, and in many cases have already launched ad-hoc initiatives to do so, but lack the data collection and evaluation frameworks to measure it, and importantly, to benchmark this impact against their peers. 

    “We have initiatives in place, but they’re not being measured,” responded one administrator. 

    The Sustainable Development Goals, however useful they are in actualising the concept of social impact, are far-reaching in scope, and designed for governments, not universities. Many of these indicators are not applicable or appropriate for a university to try to address, and all of them require sophisticated data collection and monitoring practices. By themselves, the goals do not provide sufficient direction for a university looking to build their social impact presence. 

    The university sector is in need of a clearly defined and agreed upon framework for measuring their own performance against the SDGs in a sector-specific, transparent way, along with the requisite platforms, expertise and resources to execute this data collection and analysis. If we take the ‘university as a social enterprise’ axiom at face value, we must reckon with the fact that there are two parts to a social enterprise: the ‘social’ and the ‘enterprise’. 

    Counting the beans 

    An optimist might say that contributing to the saving of the world is an immediate benefit to a socially impactful approach to university management and operation. However, while many universities are ultimately committed to their social mission, they are also under pressure to achieve continued growth and profitability. Threading this needle by illustrating the immediate and direct benefit of universities willing to lead the way in fostering an environment of social impact will be critical for securing the scale of financial investment needed to move into truly impactful initiative. 

    From a student recruitment perspective, there is particular demand and expectation for a more environmentally sustainable university sector. The 2022 QS International Student Survey shows that 80 percent of pre-enrolled international students think that universities could do more to be environmentally sustainable. In terms of what universities could be doing, this cohort tends to focus on inward-facing initiatives like reducing waste and improving energy efficiency on the campus. 

    While individual actions cannot solve global problems, campus sustainability efforts which go beyond their peers are likely to be a net positive for branding, marketing to university management and operation. However, while many universities are ultimately committed to their social mission, they are also under pressure to achieve continued growth and profitability. Threading this needle by illustrating the immediate and direct benefit of universities willing to lead the way in fostering an environment of social impact will be critical for securing the scale of financial investment needed to move into truly impactful initiative. 

    From a student recruitment perspective, there is particular demand and expectation for a more environmentally sustainable university sector. The 2022 QS International Student Survey shows that 80 percent of pre-enrolled international students think that universities could do more to be environmentally sustainable. In terms of what universities could be doing, this cohort tends to focus on inward-facing initiatives like reducing waste and improving energy efficiency on the campus. 

    While individual actions cannot solve global problems, campus sustainability efforts which go beyond their peers are likely to be a net positive for branding, marketing and student recruitment, as well as building higher levels of student loyalty and satisfaction. However, universities must play a more outwardly focused role to catalyse the level of structural change which will be required to avoid the more catastrophic forecasts for the planet. It’s a lot more than simply changing the light bulbs. Perhaps a clearer synthesis between ‘social’, ‘enterprise’ and ‘impact’ lies with the potential for research departments to direct their activities towards impact-focused research, helping solve society’s biggest challenges, while opening up access to public funding for such research. Particularly important in the contemporary context, given the significant challenges that COVID-19 has created for many departmental research budgets. 

    For example, impact-oriented universities could look to engage with initiatives like the €95.5 billion Horizon Europe program, which funds research to tackle issues like climate change and the SDGs. Many other such public funding opportunities exist for specific challenges and jurisdictions, presenting clear ways for universities to direct their activities towards socially impactful outcomes, while still providing direct economic benefits to the institution. 

    The clock is ticking 

    When it comes to fixing some of the biggest challenges the world faces, time is not on our side. Each Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report paints an even more apocalyptic vision of the future, while escalating diplomatic tensions between the world’s great powers threaten to plunge the world into a new era of conflict and a COVID-ravaged global economy continues to further erode living standards and heighten civil unrest among even the most stable democracies. 

    The university sector is almost uniquely placed to create impact. With access to financial resources, the brightest minds the world has to offer and with more freedoms than those that typify world governance, higher education has a clear role to play in solving these challenges by uplifting the global populace through education and directing the world’s collective brainpower towards resolving these existential challenges. What we need now is global coordination to develop the tools and methodologies that will enable the higher education sector to not just generate social impact, but to quantify, measure and evaluate it.

    This article was from the QS Global Education News Issue 09. Download the full edition.

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