Posted tagged ‘impact’

Demonstrating the value of higher education

June 2, 2015

One of the most disagreeable experiences during my time as President of Dublin City University was attending a debate in Dáil Eireann (Irish Parliament) on higher education, about ten years ago now. The topic of the debate was higher education, and more particularly whether universities were receiving adequate funding. One after another, TDs (members of the Parliament) got up and read from (or more usually recited from memory) letters they said they had received from members of the public complaining of waste and malpractice in the institutions.

But there was also another theme running through the contributions: that universities were receiving huge sums of public money, and that this lavish expenditure was not producing any impact. The country had huge economic and social needs but the universities – so the claim went – were not making much of a contribution to their resolution.

As I have noted previously and elsewhere, it is of vital importance that universities seek and maintain the confidence of wider stakeholder groups; not doing so endangers our sustainability. But on this occasion what was going through my mind was how little the country’s legislators understood the benefits society derived from universities; not just in terms of the wider education provided, but in the discoveries and innovation coming out of higher education institutions that powered the economy and secured social progress. If we are really measuring impact, it is huge.

Virtually all universities can demonstrate a dramatic impact. The scale of this is demonstrated by the ‘impact case studies’ that have been published in the aftermath of the UK’s Research Excellence Framework. My own university, for example, is shown to have provided benefits to society in areas such as artists working in the public sphere, good practice in the treatment of asylum seekers, mental health needs of people affected by disasters or major incidents, obesity management, data-driven decision-making, energy and the environment, and so forth. Other examples are shown in respect of pretty much every UK university.

Ten years ago I wanted to stand up and tell the parliamentarians that they could make few better and more impact-driven investments of public money than in higher education. That is still very much true ten years on.

Making an impact – or not …

January 15, 2010

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.