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Social engagement in London

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Who: London Higher

What: In 2007 London Higher received a grant from HEFCE (Higher Education Funding Council for England) to examine how London's higher education institutions (HEIs) interact with local communities

Why: They conducted a two year project to examine public perceptions of how London's higher education institutions interact with local communities

Where: London

When: January 2008 to June 2009 

Project description

London Higher is an 'umbrella' body representing over 40 publicly funded universities and higher education (HE) colleges in London, and is the biggest and most varied of the regional university associations in the UK. London Higher is a membership organisation that promotes and advocates for HE in London.

In 2007 London Higher received a grant from HEFCE to examine how London's higher education institutions (HEIs) interact with local communities. Articulating and delivering social engagement in London is more complex than in other UK regions due to the large number of HEIs and their different local, national and international priorities in terms of institutional mission, strategic objectives and experiences. The complex social and political environment in London, as a capital city, also shapes a more diffuse set of relationships and partnerships between HEIs, regional development agencies, local authorities, public bodies and voluntary organisations.


The initial aims of the project were to cover social engagement and outreach by HEIs with a focus on children and young people, employment skills and engagement with older people. The project obtained an overview of 'third stream' activities from a sample of 14 HEIs in London and commissioned market research for quantitative and qualitative data on public perceptions of social engagement by HEIs.

It is hoped that bringing together key findings and recommendations from this baseline study will help inform the development of a social agenda by London's HE sector.

"In societies where education is of a high standard the whole society benefits from that standard."

"The physical presence of a university could raise aspirations in the area." 

Impact or Engagement?

The project was originally titled "Social Impact by London's HEIs" (SILH) and the term 'social impact' was used to loosely cover 'community outreach' activities by HEIs, but the project did not attempt to measure changes in behaviour or social/non-economic returns from HEI engagement. Eventually 'social engagement' was adopted for the project title, as this seemed more appropriate than other terms such as social contribution or social agenda. The project evolved from being one measuring 'social impact' per se to being a baseline study of engagement as there was no previous pan-London work which could be used for estimating impact.


The 18 month project ran from January 2008 to June 2009. Project management was provided by London Higher and staff time estimated at a total of 150 days.
A Project Advisory Panel, chaired by Prof George Petts, Vice Chancellor of the University of Westminster, was established with representatives from six HEIs, a regional body (the Greater London Authority) and a third sector organisation (the British Trust for Conservation Volunteers).

Three phases of research commenced in March 2008:

1) Mapping: Semi-structured interviews were conducted on a sample of 14 London HEIs to 'map' current social engagement activities. This sample represented a cross-section of mission, size and location of HEIs in London. A total of 64 meetings were conducted between March and August 2008. Activities of interest covered a range of 'third stream' HE-community interactions, such as engagement with children and young people; lifelong learning (especially extra-mural activities involving older people); skills (unemployed and employed); disadvantaged communities, and the use of HEIs as public space.

2) Online Surveys: An online opinion poll survey of 1,576 Londoners was conducted in October 2008 by YouGov plc. The survey provided quantitative data on:

  • Level of awareness among respondents about HEIs in general, about the services they provide, what they do and their key stakeholders and beneficiaries
  • Level of usage and interaction of HEIs among children and young people (18 to 24); the workforce (employment/ entrepreneurship); the elderly (60+); ethnic minorities; parents and different social groups
  • The strengths and weaknesses of the services provided by HEIs, including why they were or were not used as service provider
  • Distinguishing in a broad sense 'users' and 'non-users' of HEIs services and how their level of knowledge and opinions may vary
  • Identifying potential gaps that may exist in the services provided by HEIs

3) Focus Groups: Public perceptions of HEI social engagement were obtained through focus groups. Ten sets of in-depth interviews were conducted in March 2009 with 65 members of the public by Ipsos MORI. Groups were selected by factors such as age, HE experience and socioeconomic class. Findings included:

  • Three types of HEIs were differentiated - research focused, course focused and locally focused
  • A London difference with outer London HEIs considered to be more community focused
  • Eight audiences for HE engagement were distinguished, such as 'outcome' students, career changers and second generation parents

London Higher's project report, Social Engagement by London's Higher Education Institutions (2009) summarises the research findings and recommendations.  

Results and outcomes

What worked well

It has been a learning process for all of the project panel members. Several academic panel members commented on how enjoyable the project was and how much they learnt in the various discussions and meetings.


The study found that London's universities and HE colleges carry out work with social and community benefits which is largely unknown by the general public. There was recognition of certain aspects of social engagement by London's HEIs but little awareness of the complete range of activities. London has the most diverse group of universities and HE colleges in the UK but these are largely seen as autonomous bodies by those in the wider community. Also, there is little awareness of the scale of public funding provided to the HE sector or that many of the services and facilities used by local communities are directly or indirectly provided by HEIs. 'Universities as institutions offering more than education' is a view held by few people in London.  

What didn't work well

No follow-on funding was secured for a possible project to measure 'impact' of HEI community engagement activities. This would have compared areas with little or no HEI engagement and areas with high HEI engagement to assess selected community engagement models, and include aspects of social capital and wellbeing.  

Resources required

Project manager; networks of HEI, regional and third sector contacts at different levels, from operational to strategic.  

Top tips

  • Plan to have more time (and funding) to test and re-evaluate findings from the initial surveys and focus groups, especially in different geographical areas (e.g. different parts of London)
  • Market research companies have specialists in further and higher education who can conduct rapid, informed studies on HE activities


Name: Paresh Shah

Name of organisation: London Higher


Telephone: 020 7664 4841

Website: London Higher