Turning the supertanker: How do we steer research universities (even more) towards impact?
July 11, 2023
By Anton Muscatelli, FRSE, AcSS
Amid global crises and mounting competition for funding, it’s time to raise our game and show the wider benefits universities can bring
When I first moved into university management, I was given some advice by a senior colleague: “Make sure you never lose sight of what makes academics tick. Ultimately how their research is regarded in their own academic discipline matters more to them than other factors, including how they feel about their own institution.”
Like most absolute statements, this lacks nuance, but there is an important kernel of truth.
Of course, as academics, we do care about more than our research, and as university leaders, we know that any sensible strategy involves balancing the interests of different internal and external stakeholder groups. Most modern university strategies resemble elements of the Kaplan and Norton balanced scorecard approach (BSC)(opens in new tab/window) in a corporate setting.
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But our landscape is shifting fast as global and societal challenges proliferate. Public funding and research funding for universities are being squeezed, and global competition is higher than ever. This demands that our sector step up its game and make clear the wider benefits universities can bring.
In the business world, many more corporates are moving their focus to “triple bottom line” performance (financial, environmental and societal metrics). This has led to the adaptation of the BSC to focus on multi-stakeholder strategies(opens in new tab/window). Similarly, universities are focusing on a wider set of priorities which move from single-discipline research towards collaboration across disciplines and impact. Funders want more bang for their buck, and importantly our students — more attuned than ever before to the socioeconomic and environmental crises facing our nations — expect much more from our institutions (and rightly so).
World crises heighten the need for focused leadership and collaboration
The economic and health shocks from the COVID-19 pandemic and the recent resurgence of inflation, taken together with the climate emergency, has put the focus of governments firmly on the need for greater resilience. Indeed, there is even a word for this in the language of international institutions such as the OECD and the IMF: the multi-crisis(opens in new tab/window).
Within my own institution, the University of Glasgow(opens in new tab/window), the COVID pandemic generated focused leadership. Our staff and students volunteered on the frontlines to support our hospitals and administer vaccines. We helped to establish Scotland’s only Lighthouse Lab COVID testing facility (and the only one in the UK run by a university), which processed 31 million tests from across the United Kingdom. Our University of Glasgow-MRC Centre for Virus Research(opens in new tab/window) colleagues were continually at the forefront of global efforts, sequencing new variants of the virus and establishing a national Drug-Screening and Resistance Hub(opens in new tab/window).
We also saw a flourishing of international cooperation with our partner institutions and organizations across the globe, from researching the impact of the pandemic on healthcare workers in Malawi, to understanding the responses to COVID-19 challenges within indigenous and Afro-Colombian communities in the Chocó region in Colombia.
More recently, we’ve again had to pivot this focused leadership towards supporting the crisis facing Ukraine. When Russia illegally invaded last year, our university came forward as part of the UK Twin for Hope Scheme, supporting 100 Ukrainian students to come to Glasgow to continue their studies. We were also awarded University of Sanctuary status in 2022 for our wider efforts to support refugees, asylum seekers and forced migrants. We know that conflict taking place across the world has a domino effect, forcing people to flee and seek sanctuary, and as civic actors, universities must step up to show leadership in this space.
Measuring our performance against the UN SDGs: a surprising outcome
External events have played their role, but it is equally important to improve how we measure impact. Measuring the influence and effectiveness of universities in terms of research has led to the development of a range of bibliometric measures, from field-weighted citation impact (FWCI) to measures of international and inter-institutional collaboration. Evidencing societal impact is more complex and requires qualitative as well as quantitative data.
Five years ago, Times Higher Education (THE) introduced their Impact Rankings alongside their more conventional world university rankings that use more standardized measures of university strength (mainly research). The new impact rankings were designed to assess universities in their performance against the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) using indicators across four broad areas(opens in new tab/window): research, stewardship, outreach and teaching.
The University of Glasgow was not an early adopter of the THE Impact Rankings. We wondered how one could use a mix of qualitative data (mainly driven by case studies) and quantitative data measuring evidence of a university’s contribution to each SDG. However, in the last two years, we have entered these rankings and we’ve reflected on what our true impact should be as an ancient and civic university. Indeed, in the current year, we have collected evidence and submitted ourselves for evaluation on all 17 SDGs. We ranked 13th in the world overall (2nd in the UK), and for SDG 11 (Sustainable Cities & Communities) we ranked 2nd in the world overall. For SDG 16 (Peace, Justice and Strong Institutions) we ranked 6th in the world, and for the mandatory SDG17 (Partnership for the Goals) we ranked 9th overall globally.
Initially, and incorrectly, we saw this measurement exercise as a way of mapping our activities to the SDGs — in essence, as a way of characterizing our research, teaching and outreach activities in terms of the sustainable development goals. But this perception has been turned on its head: our strategies across the board are now being driven by the outcomes measured against the SDGs. In part, this is exactly as one would expect from a “balanced scorecard” approach. Our various stakeholder groups (students, staff, government, our external partners) are reacting with enthusiasm to how they can influence and improve our performance in this area. More and more of our academic colleagues are thinking about how their work impacts the SDGs; importantly, they are feeling inspired, they are keener to collaborate, and they are seeing the value of their work for society in real time.
Increasingly, we do not only want to be recognized as one of the best universities in the world (as measured by conventional performance metrics) — we want to be the best university for the world. For example:
For SDG 1 (No Poverty), our colleagues at Glasgow have established a Poverty Research Network which provides a forum for interdisciplinary and global discussions on different approaches to poverty research and the connections to current issues. This includes investigating the cultural and historical contexts of attitudes towards poverty, wealth, and charity around the world, and contemporary global debates on inequality and humanitarian strategies.
For SDG 11 (Sustainable Cities & Communities), the university’s GCRF Centre for Sustainable, Healthy & Learning Cities & Neighbourhoods(opens in new tab/window) is working with eight research partners from seven Asian and African countries, and recently completed a large household survey in urban neighborhoods in 14 cities. This survey is being used to strengthen capacity of researchers and broaden understanding of government officials and policymakers across the world on the challenges facing local communities.
For SDG 7 (Affordable & Clean Energy), colleagues from our Business and Engineering schools recently teamed up with partners in the UK and India to test a solar-hydraulic power generation system aimed at providing clean, affordable and secure electricity to the remote hill-tracts of Bangladesh. This was an opportunity to combine our cross-disciplinary expertise with industry knowledge to find a solution to energy poverty.
And for SDG 8 (Decent Work & Economic Growth), the university is a key player in the city of Glasgow’s ambitious plans for the regeneration of the River Clyde: an area once synonymous with shipbuilding and the industrial revolution but now facing years of economic decline and multideprivation. We are a partner in the development of the Glasgow Riverside Innovation District (GRID), collaborating with the local community, the National Health Service and major industry player GE Healthcare to promote sustainable growth and attract opportunities for investment in life sciences and local jobs beside the city’s largest hospital. We want to leverage our role as an economic powerhouse in the city — indeed, London Economics estimates we generate £4.4 billion for the UK economy annually — to develop community-centered innovation and growth.
In some respects, I should not have been surprised that our strategy is now being driven by our impact as much as it is by our research. Improved measurement and evidence-gathering will inevitably change the strategy map for an organization. We are getting better at measuring impact, and benchmarking such as the THE Impact Rankings provide data which is useful to driving strategy.
Research universities are traditionally depicted as supertankers: slow to turn due to their organizational complexity and the fact that they embody considerable historic and cultural persistence. But in a world which is increasingly uncertain and dominated by major shocks, our internal stakeholders, our students and our staff care about how our university can be a force for good in this fragile world. In fact, if more of us seek to identify our impact and focus our leadership, then turning the supertanker won’t take much effort at all.
Prof Sir Anton Muscatelli, FRSE AcSS
Professor Sir Anton Muscatelli has been Principal and Vice-Chancellor of the University of Glasgow since October 2009. From 2007-2009, he was Principal and Vice-Chancellor of Heriot-Watt University.
An economist, his research interests are monetary economics, central bank independence, fiscal policy, international finance and macroeconomics. Prior to 2007, he held various roles at the University of Glasgow including Vice-Principal - Strategy, Budgeting and Advancement (2004-07) and Professor of Political Economy (1994-2007).
Sir Anton was Chair (2017-2020) of the prestigious Russell Group of UK research-intensive universities. He has held numerous UK and Scottish Government advisory roles including Chair of the First Minister of Scotland’s Standing Council on Europe, member of the Scottish Government’s Council of Economic Advisers, member of the Advisory Group on Economic Recovery and the National Strategy for Economic Transformation, as well as adviser to the House of Commons Treasury Select Committee. He had also advised the European Commission and the World Bank. He is a Director of the Universities Superannuation Scheme, one of the largest private pension funds in the UK, and in January 2023 was appointed Chair Elect of the Royal Economic Society Trustee Board.
Sir Anton was knighted in 2017 for services to economics and higher education and was awarded the honor of Knight Commander (Commendatore) by the Republic of Italy in 2008 for contributions to higher education and economic science. He holds an honorary degree from McGill University in Canada.