Making an impact – or not …

One of the defining questions being asked about universities around the world is what impact they should have on society. Should the benefit of a university education, or of university research, be that it will have created capacity for independent thinking and evaluation, or facilitated discovery and innovation that will ultimately produce technological, business, social or cultural improvements? Or should there be something much more direct, whereby students learn skills that are needed under current economic conditions, or whereby research is focused on problems to which society wants urgent solutions?

The problem for universities has been that as public investment in higher education has risen exponentially over the past century (regardless of whether that investment has been sufficient to meet the desired ends), expectations have risen that the investment, or at least a good part of it, will be directed towards supporting public policy as identified either by politicians, or by the media, or by various interest groups and stakeholders. This in turn has chipped away at the traditional expectations of academic autonomy and freedom.

Some of this has come to a head in the United Kingdom as the planned new Research Excellence Framework (REF) is being debated. Under this framework (which is intended to replace the former Research Assessment Exercise) research performance will be evaluated in line with a number of criteria, one of which will be its ‘impact’. This will be assessed by asking whether the research in question has been able to ‘deliver demonstrable benefits to the economy, society, public policy, culture and quality of life.’

Ever since the inclusion of impact as a yardstick has been revealed, it has produced a significant backlash. Most recently Ralph Wedgwood, Professor of Philosophy at Oxford University, has written an article in the Daily Telegraph newspaper in which he calls the use of impact ‘clumsy’ and ‘ill-judged’. He takes this view in part at least because he feels that his own discipline would not be judged to have the kind of ‘impact’ that policy-makers want to measure. Other academics are taking a similar view, and it is possible that attempts will be made to boycott the REF.

Leaving that specific UK context aside, other university systems will have to address this issue also. And once again, this requires us to look more closely at what the principles of higher education ought to be. Universities are still often presented as institutions that have stood the test of time and that have perfected their ethos and working methods over the centuries, and that should therefore be left to get on with what they have always done. Others express impatience with this attitude and say that a big public investment entitles the taxpayer to expect specific actions and solutions. Right now various working groups and committees are assessing these matters, but the universities themselves are rather silent. It is time that a more open and audible debate should be taking place within higher education, and I am hoping to organise a conference around these themes in DCU before I end my term of office. When this happens, I hope some readers of this blog will want to participate.

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5 Comments on “Making an impact – or not …”

  1. Iainmacl Says:

    Sounds good, just avoid the 10th and 11th June, because that’s when our modest little Symposium gets into action:


  2. Vincent Says:

    If as you say there are various study groups examining the Universities and that the Uni’s are mostly silent. Then it cannot be helped if like a surgeon they cut, for that’s what they do.
    The various universities cannot remain silent nor should they allow themselves to be bullied or blackmailed into silence.
    Further one of the things that seems to be forgotten is that the Universities ARE the very heart of the Establishment. And how dare they allow themselves to have some sort of self-indulgent crises, having been convinced by some anti-intellectual shower that the way forward is to get back to the days men horsing clay like the way a combo of right-wing Catholics and FF types did in the UK after the WW2, because this is the only way they can maintain control. -Bertie, the love, was not sucking on a hind nipple while over visiting Manchester.-
    The Taxpayer, and who the heck is this ideal git anyway, does not give two hoots. They would prefer that the Army vanished if it was understood that the kids of those now in the army were properly educated. They would happily have their moneys garnished IF they could be certain that it would go to R&D and Education. People, and especially Irish People are far from stupid. We know that into the future, we will have to invest in all forms of education if we are not going to end up back in the dark ares like some would like to see us for their our ends

  3. kevin denny Says:

    One cannot help thinking of Einsteins remark “Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted.” Clearly some disciplines will find it easier to demonstrate impact than others but it would be wrong to chuck out subjects just on that basis. I note that Impact is only 1 of 6 criteria so maybe its not likely. Remember there are some subjects in third level which are, shall we say, not very intellectual: they are intrinsically practical. I am not going to give examples to avoid offence.
    Doesn’t it make sense to judge such subjects by their impact- after all why bother have them if they have no impact?
    The devil is in the detail of course and the challenge is to find some sensible way of valuing diverse disciplines.
    As an aside, one important role for universities is to cause trouble. By that I mean to provide critical comment on social, political and other matters even if its uncomfortable for the government, vested interests etc. Much of the most critical and independent thinking about our recent economic crisis has come from the universities. That stands to reason: who else has the expertise and the freedom to do so? It is essential that this role is not just protected but encouraged.
    Good luck with the conference, a great idea.

  4. John Says:

    Reading and interacting in this blog has helped raise questions in my mind about all sorts of educational issues.

    I’d like to know what proportion of scientific discoveries have been made in universities.

    Where should I look? Refine the question if you like e.g. add ‘significant’ or ‘since X’.

  5. Charlie Gere Says:

    Here is a link to a site advocating boycotting the REF

    Please circulate

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