New ‘playbook’ aims to help universities amplify their societal impact
July 20, 2023
By Linda Willems
This 5-step guide shows research universities how to pinpoint areas with potential for impact and translate them into success
Universities strive to deliver research findings that are not only sound and replicable but make a meaningful contribution to society — and the need to demonstrate that impact is more important than ever.
This increased emphasis comes from governments, funding bodies and even taxpayers, who all want evidence that the research and teaching contributions of universities are advancing areas of societal importance such as health, the environment and the economy.
This has led to universities asking themselves some probing questions. As Prof David Adams(opens in new tab/window), Pro Vice-Chancellor for Community, Partnerships and Regional Development atAustralia’s University of Tasmania (UTAS)(opens in new tab/window), notes: “Globally universities are reassessing what they are good for, not just what they are good at.”
He has seen a growing number of universities — especially those in regional locations — focus on finding ways to use their learning and teaching, research and engagement activities to increase their impact on the community around them.
However, any kind of societal impact is notoriously difficult to achieve at scale, challenging to define, and hard to measure. It can also take decades to achieve. Various attempts have been made to track universities’ wider contributions; for example, in 2019, Times Higher Education launched its Impact Rankings(opens in new tab/window) (to which Elsevier contributes data). But many of these initiatives look to traditional indicators, the majority of which are linked to research activities rather than outcomes. In addition, they focus on attempts to measure past impact.
In a bid to address these challenges, UTAS joined forces with Elsevier’s International Center for the Study of Research (ICSR) to explore options for a more evidence-based process. As Prof Adams explains: “Putting impact at the center of thinking means putting impact at the center of decision-making.”
A key collaborator on the project, Iha Diwan(opens in new tab/window), Senior Strategy Manager at the University of Tasmania, explains: “In my area of work with the university and global analytics firm Elsevier, we have developed the Tasmanian Societal Impact Model, an analytical framework for measuring and testing the various ways we can make a difference in society. Equality of access is one way. Another is teaching future generations the skills and knowledge to understand the challenges facing the globe and the ways they can rise constructively to meet the challenges.”
The fruit of the collaboration is the replicable and scalable Tasmania Societal Impact Model (TSIM)(opens in new tab/window). The model has now been published in the TSIM Playbook, a freely available guide to help research and higher education institutions plan for and implement their societal impact initiatives. UTAS is at the start of the place-based impact journey, and the model is a ‘heuristic’ designed to give general guidance on what is seen as important components for planning for and amplifying impact.
The TSIM: a structured and adaptable model
The TSIM is a structured 5-step process depicted in the diagram above. The playbook describes each of the steps in detail over the course of five chapters. The term “playbook” was chosen because universities can either follow the five steps in sequence or view them as building blocks they can “play” with to maximize impact and look to measure and attribute plausible explanations of impact. The chapters also contain lessons learned from UTAS’s own use of the model over the past two years.
“Not every university can do everything for everyone all the time,” says Dr Angela McGuire(opens in new tab/window), who headed up the project for ICSR. “They need to prioritize areas where they will likely have the most impact.”
To help a university plan for maximum societal impact, she explains, the TSIM has been designed to enable institutions to identify and grade the relative importance of specific societal issues that need to be addressed, then rate their own research and teaching strengths in these areas. This helps them understand where there is a strong match between the two, and these go on to become their focus areas.
The model then suggests ways to create strategic plans to support these focus areas, with guidance on how to measure their progress.
The collaboration team believes the key hallmarks of the TSIM’s novel approach include its focus on:
Future societal impact (rather than past contributions)
Evidence-based impact pathways to guide implementation
Dr McGuire explains: “The TSIM is less about trying to specify individual contributions (although these are also important) and more about everyone pulling in the same direction to increase impact. We believe partnerships and the community are central to impact, so the model involves them early in the planning process. And the TSIM is not about ‘set and forget’; instead, it is a continual monitoring and prioritizing process that fluxes depending on the changing societal landscape.”
She adds: “Ultimately, the TSIM is about planning for impact. And it encourages institutions to leverage the professional services they already have in place: for example, research support staff, business development managers and marketing staff, as well as influential external contacts and alumni.”
Place-based strategies for maximum societal impact
According to Prof Adams, one of the unique qualities of the TSIM is its place-based approach — this means thinking not only about how the institution contributes to the community around it but about how the location or community can support the university’s work. For example, in the case of UTAS, its Institute for Marine and Antarctic Studies (IMAS)(opens in new tab/window) uses its “place” advantage to undertake Antarctic and marine research that provides valuable input for global policies.
5 key benefits of the TSIM playbook
Flexibility: It can be adapted and nuanced to meet the requirements of different organizations and contexts.
Promotes collaboration: The playbook highlights the need — and provides a mechanism — for external partners and stakeholders to have early and ongoing input.
Supports data-driven decisions: It identifies tactical and achievable actions that can be taken across different time horizons and embedded in strategic plans.
Practical and easy to implement: It supports organizations to evaluate and measure their societal impacts.
Paints a complete picture: The playbook enables early identification of indicators to monitor societal impact. These not only go beyond traditional measures of organizational performance; they help to de-emphasize short-term political agendas.
UTAS was a natural partner for Elsevier on this project. The university not only has a strong record in demonstrating societal impact — the Times Higher Education Impact Rankings rated UTAS the number one university in the world on climate action in 2022 and 2023 — it also prides itself on its creative thinking and problem solving.
Reflecting on the TSIM, Prof Rufus Black(opens in new tab/window), Vice-Chancellor and President of UTAS, admits: “We don’t yet know to what extent our approach will have broader applicability. We realize that all higher education organizations and their communities are unique, and that what works in Tasmania might not work elsewhere.
“Nevertheless, we believe the Tasmania Societal Impact Model offers a valuable new approach and is a model that research funders and government agencies, as well as universities, could use. We are sharing it for free use and adaptation, with a view to furthering our collective understanding of how to measure and amplify societal impact globally.”
Seeking your feedback
The collaboration team would love to receive feedback from other universities to help shape future iterations of the TSIM and the playbook. You can email; the collaboration team at [email protected](opens in new tab/window).