Tuesday, 17 July 2012

Universities creating impact: the next five years

It may not be visible from outside, but currently UK universities are in a frenzy of activity to demonstrate the impact their work has had on non-academic audiences as part of the Research Excellence Framework (REF). The REF is a 5 yearly exercise that monitors and rewards the quality of research, and includes a measure of non-academic impact for the first time in the current round. This has created a much higher level of interest in how universities engage with communities, decision makers and others outside the institution.

I was recently asked to think about how universities might embed research impact over the next five years.  I started by thinking about what CRFR has been able to achieve over ten years (See KE at CRFR, Past present future), and what I observe in other parts of the university. There were two key building blocks in CRFR’s success in engaging with non-academic audiences and undertaking knowledge exchange activities (KE):

1)      Commitment and leadership: The original Directors of CRFR were committed to KE and provided leadership within the Centre that valued engaging with a range of non-academics, acknowledging that this could increase the quality of research. There was an underlying commitment that it was the right thing to do, an openness to trying new approaches, and a willingness to put potential academic barriers to one side

2)      Support: There was recognition of the limitation of their expertise, and the need for skilled support staff who understood the needs of the external stakeholders and who had events management experience. This raised CRFR’s engagement activities to a highly professional level – making for a better experience for those who come along to events. There was also a commitment to funding and supporting KE professionals in these roles.

So how do we create a culture where activities aimed at ensuring research impact are embedded into the way universities do things? We are not alone in considering this question. The National Coordinating Centre for Public Engagement (NCCPE) has been tasked with embedding culture change across universities and has developed some tools to assist with this process. Their tool ‘the edge’  suggests universities need to consider a range of questions about purpose, people and process. I have picked up on some of these here.

Where is the leadership in developing an institutional approach to ensuring research impact?

In my opinion leadership is still lacking and a lot of the best knowledge exchange activity occurs on the fringes of universities, passing under the radar of the institutions. There is a gender issue here too, with the majority of KE roles being filled by women, and the majority of leadership roles within universities by men. Rewards and promotions are slow to catch up with the impact agenda, with traditional academic activities still holding the higher status.

What are the community needs and how do we assess them?

Recently I have been fortunate enough to develop links with the Knowledge Mobilization unit at York University, Toronto. Their outward focus includes a helpdesk and helpline asking the local community ‘what do you want from our university?’ I find it hard to imagine a traditional UK research-led university being this open. Thinking more strategically about what external stakeholders might want requires a rethink about what a university is for. If we want research to have an impact we really need to understand better the issues facing our communities, practitioners and policy-makers.

What is the role of students?

Students, both undergraduate and postgraduate often have a huge interest in how their research is relevant to the wider world. Some overseas universities, particularly in the US send thousands of students to engage with local community groups, particularly around small projects sometimes linked to dissertations. I have some reservations about the ethics of such programmes, but I think it is important to consider the role of students in engaging with non-academic stakeholders and the huge potential that they represent

What can researchers get involved in rather than having to initiate themselves?

There is a lot of concern about the reinvention of the wheel. How can we embed processes of knowledge exchange so that researchers can link with skilled professionals to develop the highest standard of activities? The reputation of the university rides on this engagement, and there is a need to build on the goodwill of non-academic stakeholders to develop this agenda. If people come along to something which is boring, or not well designed, or which ignores their needs (and I have been to a lot of these!) then will they ever want to engage again? There is a need for learning communities, such as CRFR’s newly initiated KE Community of Practice, to allow supported experimentation as this agenda develops.

What recognition is there?

The REF is highlighting some of the excellent and exciting activity that staff within universities are engaged with that was previously less visible. The need for rewards and recognition for engagement activities seems clear, but is slow to develop within university systems. For example, how about including the opinions of external stakeholders in promotion panels?

How will this be coordinated?

Universities tend to be hugely bureaucratic with systems for teaching, research and support which have developed over many years. This is yet to be replicated in terms of the diverse activities that create research impact across an institution. We need better systems for coordinating engagement activities, but these need to be flexible enough not to stifle the creativity and responsiveness that is at the core of good quality engagement between academics and others.

So how do we create a culture where activities aimed at ensuring research impact are embedded into the way we do things? As the NCCPE acknowledge, culture change is hard. There is a need for training in communication, creating and evaluating impact, and the development of standards of practice that raise the game. Enthusiastic researchers who want to engage can still be stifled by line managers who are wedded to an older model of academia, so we need to build mentoring capacity and learning communities to bypass those who will never be interested in this agenda. We need to build an experimentation, learning, evaluation and sharing cycle which will help to ensure the quality of this emerging area. My own work using contribution analysis to assess impact is one way of starting to do this.

Lets hope that the legacy of the Research Excellence Framework 2014 will be that university research is no longer seen as an isolated intellectual activity, but one that is enriched by wider engagement with experts from the public, communities, policy and practice. Looking to the next five years can help universities include research impact as a key component of their business.

Sarah Morton
Co-Director, Knowledge Exchange

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