Addendum re Impact

There is a good piece in this week’s TLS about impact, by Stefan Collini (on “impact,” cf. my previous post). I particularly like his emphasis on two points:

1) Impact cannot be impact if it “just happens”. If a piece of research gets taken up by the media and leads to a museum exhibition because it happens to be interesting, that’s not good enough: a department has to demonstrate that it deliberately set out to create impact. (This is strange in terms of REF as a scheme for measuring value, and shows it up for what it really is, i.e. a scheme for manipulating behaviour).

2) The whole idea is predicated on the perception that universities are little closed islands, and that research can only be counted as having impact if people are affected by it who are themselves not associated with universities. Impact on students, or on other scholars, is not impact. According to the government’s own statistics, participation rates in higher education were 43% in 2007/8, while the government aspires to a figure of 50% (an arbitrary figure: why not 45%, or 55%, or 60%? That’s another debate…). This is already a huge number of people. Having research impact on students is not a matter of restricting it to some tiny ivory tower community, as it might have been forty years ago, but the impact policy seems to assume that the universities are a little closed world, rather than an important part of the life experience of more than two fifths of the country.

This being said, there is a funding review going on, and we can assume that it is going to recommend variable fees increases. If this happens, there will be increasing financial incentives for lower income students to study at low cost, low research universities rather than the “Russell Group,” and the tendency for research intensive universities to teach students from wealthier families will increase. In other words, research impact on students will be disproportionately focused on wealthier students to a greater extent than is the case now, while poorer students will be more likely to get “read and repeat”. Needless to say, this review will not be published until after the election!

Does “impact” reflect a cack-handed attempt to counteract the effects of a highly retrogressive new funding policy that hasn’t officially been decided yet?

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One Response to Addendum re Impact

  1. Tony Francis says:

    The problem arises when someone else is supplying the money. In general, academics are free to pursue any research their discipline leads them. Once they become involved with a university, there are the local politics of the academy. This can hamper the freedom of research. When government money is added to the mix – there are several assumptions immediately apparent: 1.) the money will be in short supply; 2.) many will be after it; 3.) there is an overt or hidden political agenda behind the funding. Hence the need for “impact of money spent.” It is a political necessity when tax money is committed to universities. When people are out of work, or living at a subsistence level, it is difficult to justify academics being funded to study the sex lives of mildew and mold. So, this is just political cover, if nothing else.

    Research at the university level has several functions: 1.) Teach students the methods of research (without necessarily leading to any new discoveries); 2.) Teach students how to research the existing literature of a subject – no small task; 3.) Generating papers for publication leading to tenure for professors, and prestige to the institution; 4.) Lead to new discoveries, which can benefit business or society in general. 5.) Lead to discoveries of questionable usefulness. There are probably others.

    The US figured this out some time ago. Public money gets spread around to all the universities, rather than concentrating it in a few elites.

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