We have drifted into a university system in which economic growth is valued over everything else. In many universities, I would argue that this has overtaken the focus on achieving a positive impact on society. This marketised system risks becoming further entrenched if the Augar review of post-18 education is implemented, particularly through the focus on graduate salaries as a measure of a university’s success. It’s been suggested that to remedy this we should overhaul the university system entirely, but that’s not the only solution.
Universities are autonomous institutions in which academic freedom is the fundamental principle. In today’s world, in which half the nation attends a university, it is also clear that they carry a civic responsibility to engage with society – yet it’s hard to argue that either is the case in the UK anymore.

Universities now often have to mimic business practices in order to survive, and many end up spending millions simply to attract fee-paying students. Universities are forced to compete with each other to offer courses that provide “value for money”.
At a time when Britain faces pressing social problems including growing inequality, the educational sector has an important role to play. The problem with the Augar recommendations is that they are a missed opportunity to provide a clear vision for how universities could do more to help confront societal challenges.
A new sector-wide strategic agenda focused on social impact could find genuine cross-party endorsement, unlike the divisive issue of tuition fees. But how would it work in practice? The government could introduce a new social impact survey of universities’ work in this area, perhaps by integrating it into an existing initiative that assesses the impact of their work, such as the research excellence framework. This would measure not only teaching and research, but also the other projects that students and staff engage in.
Two key measures would be the extent to which university projects engage with the public, and how successfully they focus on social challenges in the local area. The government could consider providing funding to universities which perform well to enable them to expand their work.
This may sound costly and impractical, but some universities are already doing it. King’s College London, for example, is currently conducting a survey of students and the public aimed at identifying its social impact. The survey uses the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) as a benchmark. One of the areas where the university is currently achieving the most is in addressing the air quality exposure of children.

The SDGs are 17 global policy aims adopted at a United Nations summit in 2015 which aim to solve the world’s biggest problems by 2030, and could provide a useful framework for a government-backed national survey scheme.

They are already transforming the way universities operate elsewhere. In Japan, Hokkaido University’s Graduate School of Infectious Diseases is using SDG3 – the goal on good health and wellbeing – to guide its research. In Ghana, meanwhile, All Nations University College’s work on empowering women through education is based on SDG5 on gender equality.

No matter what exact assessment methodology is used, the first step is to get social impact on the agenda in the UK. As Geoff Mulgan, chief executive at innovation agency Nesta, has pointed out, universities can benefit from being more “challenge-driven” and focused on real-life problems in their curriculum.

A century ago, when universities were only for the select few, it did not matter whether they prioritised scholarly freedom or benefited broader society. Now that they split the country into two camps, in terms of who goes and who doesn’t, society has a stake in the matter. With the next general election looming, it’s time the public demanded universities focus more on social impact. Only then will party leaders and vice-chancellors have to sit up and take note.

Vincent Straub is a research assistant at King’s College, London

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