Ding dong: impact 'chaos' lurks on the doorstep

Paul Manners worries that rush to tell research stories turns academics into salesmen and undermines collaboration

April 18, 2013

Source: Alamy

The pitch: ‘individual academics going on impact journeys’ are likened to cleaning-products salesmen knocking on doors

The incorporation of impact into the research excellence framework risks undermining the collaborative approach that is needed for its maximisation, an academic has warned.

Paul Manners, associate professor of public engagement at the University of the West of England and director of the National Co-ordinating Centre for Public Engagement, told the Future of Impact conference, held in London on 10 April, that he had been struck by new guidance by the Office for Fair Access on widening participation.

According to Mr Manners, the Offa document, How to Produce an Access Agreement for 2014-15, published in January, shows that universities “have been chasing the wrong things”.

“We have chosen to chase individual students [with] bursaries and have created a competitive culture between universities.

“My worry about the REF is that I don’t want us to go down the same kind of route [with impact] and end up emphasising…competition rather than collaboration,” he said.

Impact will be worth 20 per cent of the scoring in the 2014 REF.

Mr Manners said that a competitive approach would be to the “long-term detriment” of efforts to “collectively build much greater public value”. He highlighted the potential for “chaos” created by “lots of individual academics going on impact journeys” - a situation he likened to cleaning- products salesmen knocking on doors in the 1970s.

He warned that the “journey” approach also conveyed an unhelpful sense of “academics trying to push a load of stuff into the world”.

“But does the world want it? How tuned is this to what people actually really need and demand of universities?” he asked.

As well as fine-tuning approaches to impact assessment ahead of the REF, institutions also needed to “step back” and consider wider issues such as how to embed the promotion of impact in their institutional cultures.

Unless academics’ “intellect, imagination and values” were engaged by impact, there was a danger that the agenda would be “a rather limp, bureaucratic and ineffective intervention”, Mr Manners said.


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