Societal engagement and impact are currently a highly topical and widely discussed subjects in HEIs. Strategic plans often emphasize the topic as a key objective for research and education, as well as a long term benchmark, and societal engagement and impact have become one of the key evaluation criterias for higher education accreditation organizations and providers of funds. Depending on the size of the university, societal engagement and impact is treated on a regional, on a local or on a global level. HEIs see the topic as highly important, yet the communication of societal engagement practices and impact is rather scarce. Next the societal impact is first discussed through findings from analysis of selected European cases followed by the key insights from qualitaive studies on HEis in Estonia and Finland.

International cases in Europe - Current situation

Societal impact is a key value for universities and higher education institutions. Most of them address it in one way or another in their mission statement or elsewhere on their websites. However, comprehensive and clear communication to an outside audience seems to still be a challenge for institutions, and this might be the result of different causes. Technical universities seem to have a stronger motivation to present their societal impact than arts universities.

One of the options for presenting societal impact is provided by other platforms, for example under research program commucation, which might help the HEIs to become more public about the projects they are implementing. A presentation to a wider public can result in a more interested audience, and furthermore can serve as an inspirational example of good practices for other institutions to implement similar projects. The management of HEIs might also fund good projects, which is an input for doing more and increasing engagement. Providing a platform for communication and exchange is another potential improvement that can lead to a more intense debate around the issues involved. The conditions need to be provided by the highest board of the HEIs, so as to pave the way for all levels of stakeholders to interact and develop societal engagement policy.

This desk research initiated by the HEISE project explores how HEIs define their societal impact; in which documents they consider their societal impact; what indicators show they communicate their societal impact, and what are some of the examples presented. ...

To assess the universities’ societal impact, only data provided by them online was used. Several tools of measurement were used uniformly in all the examples. Among others were the examples of good practice presented on the website of the university, the university’s own statement about societal engagement and their role in society, and the number of results found on their website connected to certain keywords.

A sample of eight universities from seven different European countries was chosen:
1. Trinity College Dublin
2. National College of Art and Design Ireland
3. Tilburg University
4. University of Iceland
5. Bilgy University Istanbul
6. Spiru Haret University Bucharest
7. Oxford University
8. Augsburg University of Applied Sciences

Indicators for societal engagement

A communication issue was encountered in most cases. Mostly, the path to finding specific examples of societal engagement is complex and takes effort. Furthermore, in Germany and Ireland, for example, good practices were presented through other platforms, for which societal Impact was the main focus. Referral links to the universities themselves were mostly missing from these platforms. A good illustration of this issue involves Augsburg University. On the website of the institution itself there are only a few examples of good practice, while in other media there is evidence of many projects which were carried out under the umbrella of Augsburg University, but not presented by the university itself. This might be due to different reasons in each case, but the importance of the topic does not seem to be crucial for most of the institutions. Nevertheless, efforts to keep the public updated about recent projects need investment and can be improved overall.

Societal impact is the main value of the university.

The universities are aware of the importance and the responsibility they as institutions have towards society. All of the universities address it in one or the other way in their mission statement, and some have separate sub-chapters, where they dig deeper into the topic. However, while it is a topic touched on by all the institutions, this in some cases is the only moment when they refer to it.

Project descriptions of good practice mostly lack concrete tools.

The values, aims and outcomes are stated, but they may not be specific enough to serve other parties as concrete inspiration. It might be useful to give readers the option of going deeper into the topic, to invest more in the documentation of projects and practices, in order to provide practical advice for people who are interested. ...

This research was initiated by the HEISE project and was implemented by Laurea University of Applied Sciences and the Sibelius Academy at Uniarts Helsinki in Finland in the spring of 2018. Six semi-structured interviews were conducted with managers and experts in the field of higher education. This particular study provides illustrative and informative insights into different aspects of societal impact and captures a general overview of the current situation.

Background on societal impact in Finnish higher education
Since 2005, societal impact has been one of the focal points in the qualitative auditing of higher education institutions. The Finnish Education Evaluation Center (FINEEC) evaluates the societal impact of higher education institutions from a procedural point of view: How is the setting of goals and objectives organized, and how are they linked with the core tasks of the university (teaching, research and development, regional development)? Furthermore, evaluation is concerned with how management and other staff and students interact with society. In the current third round of qualitative auditing, social impact is a particular focus, testing the boldness of HEIs to experiment as well as to innovate in all three tasks. ...

This research was carried out by the HEISE team of the Estonian Business School in spring 2018. Six semi-structured interviews were conducted with senior managers and experts in the field of higher education, of which four represented major universities in Estonia. These semi-structured interviews served three main aims: 1) to study the prevailing perceptions and variations in understandings of the concept of societal impact, 2) to map and study current practices in the evaluation/assessment of societal impact, and 3) to study whether and how societal impact is used as a decision- making criterion in the managerial decision-making process in HEIs. A summary of the main findings and insights into different aspects of societal impact are provided in the following sections.

Serving the public via engagement in the solving of societal issues has become firmly established as a third major criterion (alongside teaching and research and development) for evaluation of the performance of HEIs and their academic staff among the HEIs interviewed in Estonia. While HEIs keep track of and report their societal engagement, the HEIs seem to have only a relatively limited understanding of their societal impact, even though societal impact is reportedly evaluated in one form or another by all the HEIs interviewed. The concept of societal impact is not understood uniformly by HEIs, but is subject to various interpretations. Concept-related knowledge and methodological know-how seem to be rather superficial in most of the HEIs studied. The path to impact and causality is barely or inadequately addressed. The focus is often on outputs rather than on impacts. A tendency to report positive intended impacts and disregard costs to society is quite widespread. The motivation for HEIs to engage in SI assessment seems to stem largely from external requirements (accreditation), rather than from internal needs. Financial considerations seem to dominate consideration of societal impact in decision-making processes.
Stakeholders’ perceptions and understandings of the concept of societal impact
The stakeholders of the HEIs understood the concept of societal impact as a management issue strongly linked to the strategy and to the implementation of it in the institution’s core tasks. This is understandable because of the Finnish higher education qualitative auditing system described above. When considering the societal impacts with other stakeholders within the field of higher education, interesting complementary viewpoints emerged in discussions. In assessing societal impact you eventually return to the fundamental values of society. For example tolerance, multiculturalism, inclusion, and preventing radicalization are all issues we want to promote. ...

Mapping of stakeholders’ current practices in measuring societal impact
All higher education institutions in Finland evaluate societal impact on a regular basis due to compulsory audits by FINEEC. The basis for assessing the effectiveness of Finnish universities lies in their three main tasks: teaching, R & D and regional development. For this reason, it is natural that this triangle also acts as a starting point for measuring social impact.
Higher education institutions conduct societal impact evaluation both externally and internally:
1) National evaluation is done every six years by the Finnish Education Evaluation Center. In this evaluation the focus is on the level of the whole organization.
2) Other evaluations carried out for specific purposes, both internally and externally. In this field of assessment, not only project-specific evaluations are conducted.
Many higher education institutions also use external evaluators, for example at three-year intermediate evaluations.
The performance management of the Ministry of Education and Culture determines certain indicators for higher education institutions. Additionally, each organization has, in practice, other (including qualitative) indicators/key performance indicators for internal use. Most of the indicators concern outputs and outcomes rather than long-term impacts, but not all.

Stakeholders’ perceptions and understandings of the concept of societal impact
The results of semi-structured interviews clearly reveal that the term (concept) “societal impact” is rather differently understood by the representatives of higher education institutions interviewed. The multiple and often diverging interpretations of the term “societal impact” seem to stem from the varying degree of (in-depth) knowledge of the concept, and from the limited attention paid by HEIs to this concept. This is revealed by the diversity of definitions of “societal impact” offered by interviewees, as well as by the answers to specific questions which were aimed at clarifying the understandings (perceptions) of interviewees in a more detailed and systematic way.
Defining “societal impact” turned out to be a difficult task for most of the interviewees. None of the definitions offered by interviewees contained simultaneously two of the most important key words associated with the term – “change“ and “social welfare“.
In fact, “change” was never mentioned, while “social welfare” appeared in only one of the definitions offered. All this seems to suggest that, overall, the concept of SI has not yet captured sufficient attention in the institutions studied. ...

As this short review of the results of interviews reveals, people and organizations have diverse understandings of the concept of SI. This is consistent with the existing literature on SI, which also reveals a multitude of understandings. For many, the concept of SI is still a vague concept. According to interviewees, some of the measures that could improve understanding of the concept of SI and increase its importance in society would be: 1) wider involvement of academics and specialists in the process of determining the strategic priorities of the state; 2) the introduction of compulsory SI assessment at the state level; 3) distribution of information on SI, clearer communication, and promotion of public discussions about SI; 4) improvement of communication between stakeholders in order to negotiate their goals and assess their contribution.

Mapping of stakeholders’ current practices in evaluation of societal impact SI is evaluated in one form or another by all the organizations interviewed. The motivation for organizations to engage in SI assessment stems from internal needs as well as from external pressure and stakeholders’ expectations. According to the vast majority of interviewees, the need to assess SI arises primarily internally. Assessment of SI is seen as an activity, which: 1) contributes to the elaboration of plans for the organization’s future development (making it possible to clarify the organization’s position/role in society, and assess the effectiveness of the organization’s activities and efficiency of the use of resources); 2) increases the organization’s public presence (image); and 3) provides justification for the organization’s material needs and (public) funding. However, the need to undertake SI assessment is often also determined externally. Externally, the mapping and assessment of SI is imposed by funders and also by higher education accreditation institutions, which use SI as one of the evaluation criteria in the evaluation of HEIs and their study programs.


The main obstacles and issues faced by the organizations in the evaluation of SI seem to be lack of previous experience, and absence of applicable methodological guidelines, models or best practices. Changing guidelines, changing priorities in society, time constraints for data collection and difficulties in establishing the channels of impact were among other issues outlined during the interviews.
The role of societal impact in managerial decisions
There seems to be know-how in relation to societal impact at lower levels of management in educational institutions (e.g. among the people who work more closely with the students), but this knowledge is hard to articulate and translate into a framework that could reach the top management and policy makers. On the other hand, funders require the top management of educational organizations to present figures reflecting their activities, which focus more on outcomes than on impact. In addition, organizations lack sufficiently varied indicators for them to be used in strategic decision- making. ...

To conclude, higher education institutes seem to have established procedures for measuring and managing societal impact. However, they acknowledge the need to discuss the understanding of the concept more thoroughly within their organizations and among the stakeholders of HEIs. The concept is regarded as a management issue strongly linked to mission, strategy, and key performance indicators. The interviewees identified the need to put more emphasis on developing qualitative indicators, and to pay more attention to unpredictable and unintended negative and positive impacts. Although it is understood that societal impact concerns long-term changes, the challenge remains how to evaluate these long-term impacts, and how to evaluate any causalities.
The role of information regarding societal impact in managerial decision-making

All organizations interviewed agree that an understanding of an organization’s SI— and the impact of its activities—is important for the organization. For most organizations interviewed, SI assessment is considered to be associated with benefits for the organization, whereas some of the interviewed organizations perceive that there are also monetary benefits, although, as noted, the monetary benefits are difficult to measure. The interviews conducted, however, do not allow us to establish whether the role played by knowledge of an organization’s SI has remained the same, increased or decreased (and for what reasons) over time, as the vast majority of interviewees could not determine this. The opinion that the relevance and importance of SI evaluation in the organization has increased was clearly expressed by only one HEI, which was also one of the two organizations that perceived that information disclosed concerning SI is monitored by their stakeholders, matters to them, affects their choices and, thereby, determines also the future of the organization. The other educational organization that perceived that their SI-related information matters to their stakeholders suggested that stakeholders’ interest in their SI-related information has grown over time.


More extensive use of SI evaluations and expansion of the role of SI as a criterion in the decision-making process seems to be mainly hampered by the limited knowledge of evaluation methodologies, as well as by the absence of best practices that can easily be adopted by organizations. On the other hand, wider use of SI assessment by organizations also requires the raising of public awareness of the concept of SI, and public recognition of SI as one of the major criteria for evaluating the use of resources in society. In order to encourage a society-centered way of thinking and social responsibility, public policies should promote the generation and wider distribution of conceptual and methodological information on SI.
Societal engagement and arts organizations

For readers interested in arts organization see below a similar study of arts organizations in Estonia, Finland and Spain initiated by the HEISE project 2018-19.




Summary on Survey see here