Can the HE sector address the issue of impact for the future REF?

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Kim Ansell, considers how thinking about research and teaching is a leadership issue and a path to achieving resilient impact.

The jury is out on the question of whether higher education is having an impact on our economy, our industries, and employability of our graduates. To assess impact from a broad versus narrow, international versus local and internal versus external are just some of the current deliberations which HEFCE need to consider and which the HE community need to respond on.  Matthew Guest’s article sums up the debate on this issue in relation to the REF.

Only a few weeks ago David Morris was also asking the question can a university excel both in teaching and in research, with an interesting comparison to the banking sector.

For me, having spent much of my early career treading the fine line between making academic research palatable and valuable for practice, while still meeting the needs of the academic community for rigour and reputation. I feel sure that there is a link worth pursuing if we are to achieve that nirvana of excellent teaching and academic rankings.

My experience suggests that separation of teaching and research is just the tip of the iceberg, and the underlying culture of a non-holistic approach to work is a hidden trap which has implications for staff to be able to thrive, collaborate and to ensure that research inspires and enriches teaching, so that students benefit from learning in a research rich culture.  The separation extends from issues such as contracts, right through to strategy, performance measurement/management, reward and recognition, and leadership.

Like the RAE before it, the REF is grappling with how much and what type of impact it should assess, how it should be articulated and what emphasis it should get in the great scheme of things.  I agree with Matthew, that “REF proposals around impact do not go far enough. They do not provide enough of an incentive for institutions to address such challenges …” If HEFCE decide to be brave about this it could very well solve some wider issues.

I have no doubt that HEFCE would welcome input from University leaders on this issue and my call to action is just that. Rod Bristow, president of Pearson UK, quite rightly asserts that “At its best, higher education provides cognitive and practical skills that help our young people and our economy to thrive”. The Leadership Foundation has done work on the Impact of Leadership, Governance and Management, analysing REF 2014 case studies and there is currently no incentive for academics to evaluate internal interventions as they are not counted for impact. There are many ways this could apply, not least in the ‘research environment’, engagement of undergraduates in civic activities, or interdisciplinary opportunities.  So my “call to action” is that universities respond on this issue and look for rules to be changed to include research impact in the academy as well as beyond in wider society.  This way institutions will start to recognise and reward research that is directed at improvement of institutional teaching practice.

Understandably HEFCE is focussed on implementation of the REF, issues such as whether previous submissions can be re-submitted where there is further impact to demonstrate from older research, whether creating an exhibition catalogue from your research is admissible to demonstrate impact, how incoming grants will be assessed, what ‘open access’ really means.

While concerns have already been raised with Hefce on such implementation and operational issues, I wonder how many senior leaders have engaged with this at a strategic level.  Of course universities are equally concerned about submission clarity, criteria and weightings, but is it time for the leadership teams in universities to take a step back and think about their own strategic aims and ambitions? Is it time for the sector to determine how it should be assessed and demonstrate exactly how higher education has an impact on young people and the economy?

How can universities responding to the consultation from a strategic perspective make sure that they can demonstrate diverse outcomes from their research programmes, not just outputs in the narrow sense?  Surely one way is to demonstrate that their valuable research is being used in its teaching and helping graduates to be leading edge as they enter the workforce.  Surely it is showing how its own alumni are taking the learning from research and changing the economy, changing the outcomes of medical intervention, business practice or technological development.

As David Morris reminds us, asking how research and teaching can be more symbiotic assumes that it is a co-dependent relationship. Evidence shows that research and teaching only improve each other in certain circumstances, but in this time of increasing student expectations and the need to demonstrate value, isn’t it the duty of university leaders to ensure that their infrastructure, strategy and policy making enables this to happen and furthermore is it not their responsibility to ensure that it does not drift further apart?

The Leadership Foundation can provide practical solutions and facilitation to design strategies which embrace research and teaching. We also support institutions with staff development and performance measurement strategies that recognise flexible career pathways.  Teaching quality and research excellence are not operational issues and the sooner universities can harness their assets in a more strategic way the better informed the REF will be and the more “impact” UK higher education will continue to have on the world.

Kim Ansell, is the managing consultant at the Leadership Foundation, a specialist in professional membership organisations and higher education she advices on strategic transformation interventions.