Benchmarking the regional contribution of universities: Enabling effective engagement by higher education institutions
Submitting InstitutionNewcastle University
Unit of AssessmentBusiness and Management Studies
Summary Impact TypePolitical
Research Subject Area(s)
Studies In Human Society: Policy and Administration, Sociology
Summary of the impact
A significant body of research at Newcastle University, led by Professor
Charles, has played a key role both in articulating the importance of
universities to regional development and in demonstrating how this may be
enacted. In 2002, Charles and colleagues developed a benchmarking tool for
regional engagement that enabled universities to assess the effectiveness
of their engagement. This tool has been extensively used during the
current impact period, most recently in 2010-11 as part of an
international review of universities across 20 countries undertaken by the
Pascal Observatory. The significance of the impact lies in the tool
enabling Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) to respond directly to the
new policy imperative of engagement beyond academia. The reach of the
impact is evidenced by the use of the benchmarking tool in the UK and
Understanding the contribution of HEIs to regions and society
Academics at Newcastle, led by Professor Charles (at Newcastle 1985-2009,
Visiting Professor 2009-date), have since 1990 been at the forefront of
research that has sought to understand and articulate the contribution of
HEIs to regional economies and societies (1-2). Their research
generated a deeper recognition of how such potential could be realised. It
responded to a growing expectation that HEIs should contribute to the
economic and social development of the regions in which they are based
(e.g. Grants 3 and 4). Charles et al. identified through their
research a growing focus on local and regional communities in university
mission statements — a focus often reflected in new institutional
arrangements both within universities and between universities and other
regional bodies. However, initiatives were fragmented and there were few
mechanisms by which to monitor and measure their effectiveness.
Expanding the use of benchmarking in higher education
Benchmarking is a way to evaluate or measure the performance of an
organisation against an agreed standard. Benchmarking is well-established
as part of the process of continuous improvement for commercial companies,
and its application has expanded into public services (3). The
approach is an important management tool because it allows the combination
of different forms of measurement and models of performance. It can use
qualitative as well as quantitative indicators, process measures, and both
leading and lagging indicators. This allows it to identify if good
practices are being adopted without having to wait to measure their
Charles and colleagues at Newcastle pioneered the use of benchmarking as
a means of assessing and developing the regional contribution of HEIs.
Building on a previous project (Grant 1), in 2000 the Higher Education
Funding Council for England (HEFCE) and Universities UK commissioned
Charles to provide a framework for HEIs (Grant 2). The purpose of the
research was to enable HEIs to map the extent of their regional engagement
and assess whether and how that engagement might be extended (3-5).
Through this research the Newcastle team developed a benchmarking tool
that enabled HEIs to assess their regional contribution as part of a best
practice approach (3-5).
Benchmarking in international contexts
Between 2007 and 2012, Charles was involved in a thematic review
undertaken by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development
(OECD) to support the contribution of HEIs to regional development. This
embraced 29 regions across 19 countries. The work was based on regional
self-evaluations, international peer reviews and case studies. Charles led
the review of the Sunshine-Fraser Coast, Australia, and was part of the
team reviewing Victoria, Australia and the Basque Country. Reports were
published by the OECD (6).
The PASCAL Universities Regional Engagement (PURE) project was formed in
2008 by a number of regions who had participated in the OECD work. Its
purpose was to carry on the research and to promote greater inter-regional
collaboration through the development of action plans. As part of the
project run by the PASCAL International Observatory (Grant 5), Charles and
his Newcastle colleagues further developed the tool initially devised
through the work for HEFCE. The new tools included one for university
benchmarking and one for regional benchmarking. They were configured to
take account of a more international context, and contained new questions
that probed universities' own policies for engagement.
References to the research
1. Charles, D. (2006). `Universities as key knowledge infrastructures in
regional innovation systems'. Innovation: The European Journal of
Social Science Research, 19(1), 117-130. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/13511610600608013.
3. Charles, D., Benneworth, P. (2002). `Evaluating the regional
contribution of an HEI: A benchmarking approach'. HEFCE, Bristol.
(Available on request).
4. Charles, D., Benneworth, P. (2001). `The regional mission: The
regional contribution of higher education: National Report'. Universities
UK/HEFCE, London (published with nine regional reports). (Available on
5. Charles, D., Wilson, B. (2012). `Managing regional engagement: The
role of benchmarking'. In Pinheiro, R., Benneworth, P., Jones, G. (eds.) Universities
and Regional Development: A Critical Assessment of Tensions and
Contradictions, Routledge, pp. 219-237. (Available on request).
||David Charles /
||Regional profiles of higher
||Nov 1999 –
||The regional contribution
of higher education
||Survey of UK higher
education interaction with
||Jan 2001 –
||Contribution of higher
education to Northern
||Jan 2002 –
||Development of a
benchmarking tool for the
PASCAL project on
universities and regional
Details of the impact
Understanding the contribution of HEIs to regions
PURE had as its focus the impact of HE partnerships on regional
development. It aimed to set realistic tasks and targets for HE
partnership-based regional development. The project used a consultative
and developmental approach to help HEIs implement change. Within each
region, a review was undertaken of university engagement through
partnerships with other regional bodies. These reviews specifically used
the regional and university benchmarking tools developed by Charles (IMP1).
The tools are also publically available on the PASCAL website for others
Using the assessment tools — PURE and beyond
Sixteen regions were engaged in a two-year study from 1 January 2009 to 31
December 2010, with a second cohort starting in 2011 taking the total
number of participating regions to 19. The regions accessed the
benchmarking materials in a variety of ways. In Puglia, for example, "benchmarking
was used and universities, notably the `naturally conservative'
University of Bari, used the tool and found it valuable. It was
experienced as almost a `road to Damascus' experience" (IMP2p3).
Further selected examples are provided as follows.
Participants from Flanders reported that the benchmarking exercise "brought
together the vast array of disparate information about third mission
activities organised within the Flemish institutions. For the first
time, a report was made on these activities and most HEI actors involved
concluded that they were pleasantly surprised by seeing how many third
mission activities already exist....The booklet containing the good
practices was disseminated within a lot of organisations and opened new
insights on possible cooperation" (IMP3p2).
In the Gabarone region, both the university and city region participants
commented that their practice was impacted upon: "access to the PURE
benchmarking tools was a significant lever in developing engagement
activities...the significance of the tool was that it provided an
opportunity for joint adaptation and development of measures both to
recognise and evaluate engagement activities" (IMP4p2-3).
They also commented that "the list of substantive aspects of regional
development provided within the tool was a direct support to the task of
choosing areas of activity thrown up by the workshops as possibilities"
Benchmarking was initially applied in the Melbourne region during PURE (IMP5),
and "a significant achievement was creating a streamlined means of
working and systematically using benchmarking by both universities and
region" (IMP6p3). This took place to the extent that "Melbourne
is now an internationally recognised leader" in the use of these
techniques (IMP6p3). In addition, "the region has used the
PURE HEI and draft region benchmarking tools to take stock, and, from a
basis of knowledge, monitor and enhance progress in region-HEI
partnership. It will benefit both parties to repeat this" (IMP6p6).
The report also recommended that the work be sustained into the future.
A specific example of the continued use of this work is that the
benchmarking tool has now been taken up by Victoria University in
Melbourne as part of their strategic review of engagement (begun in 2013).
Having undertaken a detailed review of the options available to them, the
Senior Policy Advisor at Victoria University commented that the tool
developed at Newcastle is most appropriate for this task for the following
reasons: "it is appropriate to a number of the characteristics for
benchmarking at Victoria University; detailed information on the tool is
readily available; contact can be readily made with others who have used
the tool locally, as well as with David Charles; and it uses a
methodology which is regarded as useful for Victoria University,
particularly with the recent development of the Colleges" (IMP7).
Implementing the Third Mission of Universities in Africa (ITMUA)
This project also emerged from existing partnership activities, including
PURE (IMP8). Both Gabarone and Lesotho (PURE participants)
developed their work through this project. The benchmarking tools
developed for PURE were used to support the achievement of the project's
goal to investigate the role of higher education in support of regional
and sustainable development (IMP8). Lesotho is reported to have
had sustainable development, culture and community development as its foci
for benchmarking, the use of which revealed that individuals within the
university were responsible for leading most community service activity (IMP9p2).
The Project Leader of ITMUA published an article which described the use
of the tools to create a "baseline against which to assess the nature
or extent of community service activity being undertaken" (IMP10p90).This
enabled the project to understand the current level of activity, informing
the planning of new activity as appropriate. Specifically, using the tools
within a participating university revealed that members of staff were
interested in working in a cross-disciplinary manner. Based on this
finding, initiatives were developed in response, including a curriculum
development proposal which was supported by colleagues from a range of
Sources to corroborate the impact
(IMP1) Benchmarking in Pascal Universities and Regional Engagement:
An overview of processes and outcomes. Report from PURE project.
Available at: http://pure.pascalobservatory.org/pascalnow/forums/benchmarking/benchmarking-pure-overview-processes-and-outcomes
(IMP2) PASCAL Report to the Puglia Region: PURE Work 2009-2010.
Available at: http://pure.pascalobservatory.org/library/pure/fr-puglia
(IMP3) PASCAL Report to the Region of Flanders: PURE Work 2009-2010.
Available at: http://pure.pascalobservatory.org/library/pure/fr-flanders
(IMP4) PASCAL Report to the Gabarone Region: PURE Work 2009-2010.
Available at: http://pure.pascalobservatory.org/sites/default/files/Final_Report-Gabarone.pdf
(IMP5) PURE Briefing Paper No. 16, Benchmarking Universities in
Regions, Some Thoughts Arising from Benchmarking in Melbourne PURE.
November 2009. Available at: http://pure.pascalobservatory.org/library/pure/briefing-paper-16
(IMP6) PASCAL Report to the Melbourne Region: PURE Work 2009-2010.
Available at: http://pure.pascalobservatory.org/library/pure/fr-melbourne
(IMP7) Testimonial from Senior Policy Advisor, Office of the Vice
President, Victoria University
(IMP8) Implementing the Third Mission of Universities in Africa (ITMUA).
Available at: http://pascalobservatory.org/projects/current/implementing-third-mission-universities-africa-itmua
(IMP9) PASCAL Report to Lesotho: PURE Work 2009-2010. Available
(IMP10) Preece, J. (2011). `Higher education and community service:
Developing the National University of Lesotho's third mission'. Journal
of Adult and Continuing Education, 17:1, 81-97. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.7227/JACE.17.1.7.