Whilst the research project I am currently working on mainly seeks to examine the economic impact of universities and other third level institutions in Ireland, it becomes more and more clear that the focus needs to be broadened to consider the context within which the institutions are situated.
In fact, the measure of economic impact could be conducted, and interpreted, either in a relative or absolute way. In many cases, the absolute impact, e.g. of universities, may simply be used to refer to a series of numbers which show what their outputs are. These studies mix the concept of output with that of impact. Useful as it is, it fails to capture how those outputs (research projects, publications, public lectures, exhibitions, etc.) play a role in the society after being produced. Admittedly, it is itself an ambitious, if not impossible, task to aim to systematically measure the role of university outputs in the society, not to mention many would disagree significantly what the word ‘role’ actually refer to.
Differently, the relative impact, again in the example of universities, may refer to benchmarking a number of universities or comparing universities with other types of organisations. In this approach one may imagine even more complexity and, sometimes, confusion.
Scholars have come to appreciate the diversity of universities, an important element one could observe by searching not necessarily in a global scope but within the same region. The diversity might be shown in many forms, such as number of students and staff, amount of research grants, historical background and missions, academic disciplines, relationships with industry and government, as well as the wider social context.
For some, it becomes a question whether it is useful at all to benchmark universities as their significant difference may deny any implications derived from the comparison. An institution-by-institution approach has been suggested, but it has its own problems and limits. Nevertheless, it is key to justify the selection of institutions which one would like to compare.
To compare the impact of universities with other types of organisations is an interesting but even more difficult thing. Many previous studies which have done so need to view universities the same as business units, which is at best partly true. Universities, one may argue, are fundamentally different from businesses, as the former ones are non-profit organisations while the latter ones pursue profits. The argument could go on and on, but it seems true that the inter-sectoral comparison needs more cautions when interpreting.
A geographical perspective has also been added into the study on impact. There are many reports commissioned by individual universities investigating their impact on the local, regional, and national level. Normally, it is the objective of this kind of project that defines the geographical boundary of the comparison.
In the research team we have discussed about working out a review which intends to scan the extant body of impact studies of universities. This review, in our perspective, is necessary as issues mentioned above have evolved significantly and started to call for an ever more comprehensive understanding.