Defining impact: a shift in thinking, acting and being

What is impact? And, more importantly, how do universities foster and measure it? Here is a plan to raise impact awareness, literacy and readiness



Enlight European University,Euskampus Fundazioa
15 Mar 2023
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Demystifying impact: a glossary of key terms
A glossary to explain the terminology associated with research impact work

An exercise of academic opening-up has been taking place. The growing orientation of university research and teaching towards global challenges and local demands in recent years promotes active engagement with external stakeholders. This appears in the identification and definition of challenges, as well as in research and learning processes.

It is what is known as a “civic university” model, in which higher education institutions (HEIs) couple their inherent commitment to knowledge with social purpose. Universities cannot be ivory towers any more; they need to pay attention to the long-term effects of their activity and stimulate new modes of operation – new ways of teaching, open science, open innovation, openness to their communities – that ensure a positive impact, whether that’s on society, the economy or the environment.

Why do we mean by ‘impact’?

Impact is defined as the effect or change over time that we can see, demonstrate, measure or capture on different stakeholders, and which happens as a result of an activity or an organisation. Although not exclusively so, impact is intrinsically linked to transformative programmes and projects, and the assessment of impact helps us to identify the changes and effects, and their extent, on different stakeholders over time.

Impact assessment is a practice that is growing in importance and relevance worldwide. More and more organisations are analysing their impact(s) to gather evidence and understanding, and demonstrate the value of their contributions to society. More methodological approaches and tools are being developed to assess the impact of organisations or programmes, leading to impact-driven management (that is, to maximise and minimise positive and negative impacts, respectively).

In the higher education context, impact can be understood as the effect or change we can see beyond academia that happens because of a higher education or research activity. Here, impact assessment has been mainly associated with the impact of scientific and research activity, the most prominent example being the Research Evaluation Framework (REF) system for assessing the quality of research in UK higher education institutions, which first took place in 2014. Indeed, evaluations, assessments and indicators have become widespread in the academic world and are an integral part of scientific practice at all levels, from individuals and research groups to faculties, universities, funding agencies and policymakers.

Towards an impact-driven university

Enlight is one of the 44 European Universities under the European University Initiative, promoted by the directorate general for education and culture of the European Commission. It is a Europe-wide initiative composed of nine public and comprehensive universities that are all committed to examining their potential to transform themselves and higher education.

Impact is a key dimension of the projects that enable the alliance’s development, addressing two main objectives:

  • to create a comprehensive methodology and tools for measuring the long-term impact of Enlight on people, communities, institutions, and systems at large
  • to explore the frontiers of a shared impact-driven R&I agenda.

As part of this endeavour, Enlight has established an impact task force, a team of impact experts belonging to different Enlight universities. Among other activities, this task force is responsible for developing an impact assessment methodology and toolkit, proposing and monitoring pilot cases, identifying impact ambassadors, proposing and designing training activities on impact, and disseminating good practice, methodology and associated tools, both inside and outside Enlight.

This effort to address the impact generated by universities can be considered as an action-research programme within Enlight, since impact assessment is a context-dependent process. A methodological framework is being explored and tested through different action lines such as challenged-based education activities; green, flexible and inclusive mobility; or regional academies that are being developed in Enlight. The leaders of those action lines and specific stakeholders are engaged in a co-creative approach (that is, an iterative participatory process in all stages of the process) to identify the impact of Enlight on students, staff, institutions and systems. By doing so, the methodology is refined, and an impact culture is fostered.

This work has three immediate goals in our universities:

  • to raise impact awareness, which provokes a shift in our way of thinking about the mission and position of universities in relation to society, highlighting the transformative role of higher education and research
  • to acquire impact literacy, which provides the background concepts and methods, the skills and tools, necessary to systematically self-assess our impact
  • to develop impact readiness, which provokes a shift in our way of acting, enabling institutions to direct their activities towards maximising the value generated by our teaching and research activities for different stakeholders.

Eventually, we expect that the Enlight endeavour for impact will provoke a shift in our way of being, promoting and embedding a culture of impact. This will mean the adoption of impact-directed strategic thinking and impact-driven management by higher education institutions in the European Higher Education Area. Ultimately, it is a radical change in the mission of universities, moving from knowledge producers and transmitters towards tapping the potential of knowledge as a transformative force and becoming globally engaged change-makers.

Igor Campillo is the Impact Taskforce leader at Enlight (European university network to promote equitable quality of life, sustainability and global engagement through higher education transformation) and director of Euskampus Fundazioa in Spain. Glória Nunes is international manager and Iñigo Puertas is impact manager, both at Euskampus Fundazioa. They are also part of the Enlight Impact Taskforce.

All authors are speakers at the Enlight Impact Conference on 30-31 March 2023.

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