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VCs' pay code to be drawn up by CUC

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HEi-think: More focus on research impact will help HE defend itself from critics

Greater emphasis on impact in the next Research Excellence Framework may worry some academics, but it provides the higher education sector with a valuable opportunity to promote itself in response to recent criticism, argues Professor Nick Talbot, Deputy Vice-Chancellor for Research and Impact at Exeter University.

 

We live in unpredictable times. In the space of just a few weeks, universities have become firmly positioned in the crosshairs of government and, as a consequence, the wider media.

Front page headlines scream about tuition fees, vice-chancellor’s salaries and a higher education sector apparently in crisis. Academics meanwhile are accused of being indolent and complacent– enjoying their three-month summer breaks and empty campuses –while complaining about the expert manner in which Brexit is being managed by our leaders.

How times have changed for the sector, but at the same time how much stays the same, with such inaccurate historic stereotypes about higher education persisting among politicians, who haven’t been to a university in years. 

The roots of this flurry of attention of course, lie in the Labour Party’s manifesto surprise– a pledge to scrap university tuition fees altogether –which was widely credited with mobilising the younger electorate, who remain (rightly) concerned about long-term student debt. The Conservative government is clearly responding to the pressure, re-emphasised by Chancellor Philip Hammond’s recent call to MPs to ‘close the generational group’. Indeed, the recruitment of the youth vote is key to understanding the interventions of Lord Adonis, and his focus on VCs’ salaries. If students can be mobilised to rise up against their faculties, then they might be more engaged in the bigger fight against Brexit– which after all will affect them much more than changing the tuition fee structure.

In any event the media attention is both furious and determined, culminating in university minister Jo Johnson’s pronouncements on further salary scrutiny and potential caps for our university leaders. Happy days. We have many battles to come.

It is set against this backdrop that we received the first set of decisions on REF2021 from the Higher Education Funding Council for England. The headlines have been widely reported– we now have certainty on output quality, the structure and number of units of assessment, refined and more uniform impact definitions and assessment criteria, and detail on further areas for consultation. HEFCE has also dropped institutional impact cases studies, which were roundly criticised in the consultation as being unnecessary and difficult to administer. The biggest change from those trailed during the consultation process, however, is the change in weighting for impact case studies from 20 per cent to 25 per cent of the quality profile. 

The change in impact weighting is significant because it will therefore constitute a larger proportion of the financial flow from REF2021.  There will be many in the HE sector that bemoan the further emphasis on impact. They will argue (again) that it will continue to discourage pure scholarship and discovery science. I have never had much sympathy for this view. It seems to me that the desire to do curiosity-driven research is very strong indeed and the European Research Council (for now), is hugely popular with our academics, mainly because it provides un-constrained, long-term funding for big, blue-skies ideas. Thankfully, in the Brexit debate so far, there has been universal agreement that the ERC is a good thing and that, along with the training and industrial engagement elements of Horizon 2020 and its successor Framework 9 programmes, these are beneficial for the UK to be part of and, indeed, sufficiently important that we would need to re-invent them if we canont secure agreement on remaining part of Framework 9.

However, the majority of academics now understand that the most significant impacts inevitably stem from such curiosity-driven research over the long-term anyway, but that capturing them, describing them, and celebrating them really is important.

The impact of the HE sector is its greatest weapon

REF2014 achieved that cultural change I believe, particularly among younger academic staff. Given the new environment we find ourselves in, however, perhaps we should welcome the greater emphasis on impact. Right now, I think we need impact stories– and lots of them. The impact of the HE sector is, after all, its greatest weapon.

Identification and evaluation of impact has undoubtedly empowered the sector and reinforced the case for universities throughout the country. Place-based innovation and re-balancing the UK economy, both central pillars of the government’s economic policy, cannot be delivered without a strong HE sector. The Industrial Strategy says as much and follows a long stream of government reports (from Dyson back to the very best of them- ‘Race to the Top’ from Lord Sainsbury back in 2007). These reports have made the case for universities as anchor institutions (now ‘vortex’ universities- very ‘W1A’, but that’s the world we are in) that will fuel innovation and skills development to drive regional economic growth. Only through this will we reach the sunny uplands of a nation that creates wealth evenly and, importantly, in many places outside of London.

Nearly 7000 impact case studies were submitted in REF2014, evidencing clear value in terms of commercialisation (identified in almost 500 separate case studies), as well as societal goods, policy-informing work (in those days when evidence-based policy was important), and work that enabled new cures for disease and increased well-being. These impact cases studies made for powerful stories that helped the sector receive flat-cash settlements from 2010 onwards, when so much of the public sector was cut. The power of an effective narrative and series of strong cases studies has undoubtedly helped us, and we definitely need help now.

We all know how universities have played a central role in economic and social policy since the enormous demand-led expansions in higher education following the Second World War and which continue to this day. Our economic growth, which outstripped our European counterparts from the 1980s onwards, has relied heavily on our flexible labour market, openness to talent and, vitally, our higher education system.

The value of universities to the UK economy is very significant. The HE Sector delivered direct gross value added (GVA) to the UK economy of £22.6 billion in 2015/16 and a further indirect benefit of £23.3 billion. The figures are even higher when international students are included. At a regional level, my own University (Exeter) has led to more than £660 million of GVA and 10,757 FTE jobs in the South-West, while in the north, the N8 group of universities created £6.6 billion of GVA, 119,000 jobs and £12.2 billion output (2014/15 figures).

REF2021 must be used to allow us to articulate impact more clearly, and then we must use the data productively. We need to establish clearly that impact is achieved across a very diverse group of universities and that we need this rich ecosystem in order to up-skill our nation, and achieve such diverse outcomes. We also need to make the connection between research, impact and teaching much more overt. We seem to be very poor as an HE sector at articulating this connection, while at the same time knowing instinctively that one cannot consider them separately. Politicians will expect the sector to carry on delivering the same economic outcomes and innovation, while not recognising it as the same sector that they also want to deliver cut-price two year degrees, much greater contact, and ever increasing scrutiny of education.

It is almost as if there were two HE sectors- the ‘schooly’ bit and the ‘researchy’ bit, which exist as separate islands. Well, as we know there is one sector and the aims are actually the same: excellence, life-changing opportunity, innovation and, more than anything else, the generation of ideas.

So in many ways, there are very few surprises in the HEFCE guidance for REF2021, but I think right now we should welcome the increased emphasis on impact and use this powerfully to defend higher education– because we will need to.

 

 

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