Leader: It's gone one step beyond

Funding bodies set the impact agenda, but university managers made it into a song and dance that everyone had to follow

April 26, 2012

"Occupy" was the most influential buzzword of the past year, according to Time magazine, with "tiger mother", "planking" and "bunga bunga" also making the top 10.

While some may stand the test of time, others, like ageing Italian prime ministers, will soon drop out of use. But if a similar list were drawn up for higher education, "impact" would not only top it but would also be recognised as a term that was here to stay.

Enduring concern about the impact agenda was evident at a debate on the topic hosted by Times Higher Education and Globe Education last week. The discussion also suggested that the focus of that concern has shifted.

When the impact agenda was first introduced, researchers' ire was directed at the funding and research councils. Opponents said it would push them towards applied research and prevent them from dedicating the necessary time to the really big questions (with no guarantee of success).

However, our debate suggested that if these fears have started to be realised, it is largely because institutions are overreacting.

James Ladyman, head of philosophy at the University of Bristol, argued that universities and academics were prone to "over-responding" to incentives, being "on the whole rather craven when it comes to...jumping through hoops to get a bit of government money". The combination of impact and managerialism had led to a situation in which everyone is now expected to produce impact, Professor Ladyman said.

The feeling that institutions are impact obsessed was shared by others. Just as an over-active immune system can sometimes inflict greater damage than the threat it is trying to neutralise, so university managers, it is suggested, in some cases exacerbate impact's harm.

The starting gun has been fired on the research excellence framework submission season, and universities are understandably nervous about how they will fare when the results are announced in 2014 - particularly given the wildcard of the 20 per cent impact element.

One apparent manifestation of that is the acrimonious restructuring in two large schools at Queen Mary, University of London, where academics are being singled out for possible replacement based on metrics such as the impact factors of the journals they have published in.

The restructuring is explicitly motivated by a desire to consolidate the new Russell Group member's REF ranking, but critics say it will damage teaching without improving research because it will not address the high teaching loads that limit time for research.

No doubt funders should try to anticipate the effects that their policies will have on universities desperate to further their reputations and incomes. It is arguable that the Higher Education Funding Council for England should have foreseen that even though it requires only a single impact case study for every 10 academics, university managers would react by demanding that everybody have one up their sleeve.

But ought the funders be blamed if others overreact to their incentives? Shouldn't it be the job of university managers to protect their institutions from the excesses and unforeseen consequences of funders' policies, rather than the other way around?

As Shearer West, head of the Humanities Division at the University of Oxford, put it at last week's debate, "a distinction needs to be drawn between what the quangos are doing and what autonomous universities decide to do".

Universities, she said, need to look hard at "what we are doing to ourselves".

john.gill@tsleducation.com.

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