In all the discussions at the Universities Australia conference, it was striking that impact didn’t get much of a mention, in terms of how we measure research impact and how that might be addressed through the review of the ARC.  Nor did it come up in terms of the broader impacts of universities in society and how those might inform the Universities Accord.

One article covering Professor Margaret Sheil’s speech at the conference on the ARC Review focused on the future of ERA and the reporting burden on universities, but made no mention of the ARC’s Engagement and Impact Assessment exercise. Another stated that the “once-useful” ERA and EIA exercises would likely be streamlined in future into more automated and more targeted assessment of research quality and capability.

After one attempt at a national assessment of research engagement and impact in 2018-19, are we really giving up on impact so soon?

In the Innovative Research Universities’ submission to the ARC Review we proposed a new and more proactive approach to impact, and we suggested that the ARC could play a useful leadership role in making this happen.

Investments in university research lead to a broad range of positive impacts, both within the academic community and in society at large. The diversity of these impacts makes them hard to measure, but we have an opportunity to build on the work that went into the 2018-19 EIA, and to learn from colleagues overseas, to develop a better approach.

Any future assessment of impact should support innovation and diversity in the system, recognising that a one-size-fits-all approach will not work across different fields of research, universities and partner organisations. Assessment shouldn’t rank impacts or drive greater competition between universities, but rather support collaboration and the sharing of best practice.

The IRU co-hosted two events around the UA conference which brought in colleagues from the UK to share their experience and expertise. In partnership with the Centre for the Public Awareness of Science at ANU, we hosted Professor James Wilsdon from University College London, who leads the Research on Research Institute (RoRI) and who has advised the UK government and funding agencies on research policy and assessment.

His presentation Metrics, merit and maximising impact: where next for responsible research assessment (now available online here) made the key point that despite the very real challenges of measurement, universities and governments shouldn’t give up on improving existing models of impact assessment. If they do, there will be no alternative to global rankings run by private companies.

The UK Research Excellence Framework (REF) will likely evolve further to a model where assessment is weighted one third for research outputs, one third for research impact and one third for research environment, with funding attached. This gives government a lever for incentivising researchers to think about impact and also for shaping research culture and careers – for example, rewarding institutions that are making more progress on equity and inclusion.

Measuring impact is hard, but colleagues in other countries are innovating with mixed methods approaches (mixing quantitative and qualitative) and we should be learning from this and actively engaging with international groups like the Coalition for Advancing Research Assessment.

This also goes beyond research to the role of universities in their communities and in society more broadly. In partnership with Engagement Australia, IRU has also hosted a workshop on this topic that featured Natalie Day from Sheffield Hallam University and the UK Civic Universities Network.

Across the UK, universities are developing their own Civic University Agreements, sometimes one university at a time and sometimes in groups of institutions committed to a particular region (for example five universities serving greater Manchester). Key to the success of these plans is “embedding impact thinking” across the university and improving the ways in which we measure a diverse array of impacts (that go beyond research). The plans also provide an opportunity for better aligning post-secondary education and training institutions in support of place-based social and economic development goals.

Through the Universities Accord, we have an opportunity to reach a new agreement between universities and government on changes that can support a more diverse and innovative system, that can deliver the maximum public value for Australia. This should include the role of universities in helping to enhance equity, productivity and social cohesion. Focusing on impact can help us to achieve all of these goals.

Paul Harris is Executive Director, Innovative Research Universities



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