What is the social impact of university worth?

Posted by Joe Rennison on Jun 17 15:33. 19 comments | Share

A university is often valued by the amount its students go on to earn and how much they contribute to economic growth. For a student, the cost-benefit analysis of going to university tends to compare their prospective graduate salary to the actual cost of their degree. More…

A university is often valued by the amount its students go on to earn and how much they contribute to economic growth. For a student, the cost-benefit analysis of going to university tends to compare their prospective graduate salary to the actual cost of their degree. But are we leaving something out? Is there a wider, social value to a university education that is being ignored?

A new report from the New Economics Foundation, in collaboration with Universities UK, has attempted to quantify the social impact of universities.

According to its findings, universities might actually be bringing as much as £1.31bn worth of social value to the economy. This is on account of three factors:

Higher interest in politics (measured through government willingness to pay for higher electoral participation); greater interpersonal trust (valued through the costs of home and personal security, and greater economic growth because of higher levels of social capital); greater self-reported health (valued through savings to the NHS, greater productivity through higher job and life satisfaction)

Taking the first factor as an example, the report says — drawing on previous findings from the OECD — that political interest increases by 14 per cent for the undergraduate population versus those who have only received upper secondary education. That’s some 268,060 of the current undergraduate population and 1,656,060 of the total graduate population. A figure which can be monetised by factoring in current government spending on political awareness campaigns, the cost of electoral officers and the cost of teaching students Citizenship in schools.

As the author of the report, Dr Faiza Shaheen, notes:

Everyone knows that higher education is essential for a thriving economy. But universities deliver much more than just economic benefit to the UK.  They’ve been helping to build a big society – long before the current concept had ever been conceived

An important point to make and it is re-iterated in the report:

University performance is often evaluated according to a limited set of indicators, namely financial returns to individuals and impact on economic growth. Such narrow valuations ignore the role universities play in building a stronger and more tolerant society – both directly through public outreach and indirectly through the student university experience.

So, in light of these considerations the report attempts to give monetary value to the social impact of university education, more accurately representing its economic benefit.

But hang on, isn’t the sentiment of the quote a little at odds with the report Dr Shaheen has authored? If the point she is trying to make is that (emphasis added) ”universities deliver much more than just economic benefit”, why then go on to flesh out their economic benefit? Hasn’t her comment just ruled out the need for her own research?

Indeed, comedian Stuart Lee has made the point about this sort of thing before.

Either, a social impact of university is part of the economic benefit of universities but undervalued, making the need to properly quantify its value important, or it is intrinsically valuable outside of any consideration of economic benefit. It seems that this report is ideologically geared toward the latter but supported by evidence that actually props up the former.

This is not a criticism of research that assesses the monetary value of social impact and encourages the inclusion of external factors as a matter of course. It just seems strange for someone to create a report and then unwittingly admit it’s superfluous.

A sign of the increasing prevalence of economics as the dominant social discourse?

Related links:
Thinktank puts billion-pound price on sector’s social value – Times Higher Education

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