Australia releases first results of impact and engagement audit

Shadow minister says new assessment is ‘half-baked’

March 28, 2019
Sledgehammer

The first national assessment of Australian universities’ research impact and engagement activities has presented a mixed view of sector performance, and triggered further questions about the value of the exercise.

The Engagement and Impact Assessment aimed to measure the impact that Australian university research had on everyday lives, industry and public services, and how well institutions worked with the end users of their scholarship, including the general public. Forty of the 42 eligible universities participated, entering more than 600 submissions for both impact and engagement, covering 22 broad disciplinary areas, plus interdisciplinary research and projects focusing on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander issues.

On impact, 43 per cent of submissions were rated as having a “high” positive impact, with 44 per cent scored “medium” and 12 per cent assessed as “low”. This was assessed via a selection of case studies for each discipline. The highest scoring fields included engineering, law, public health, and agricultural and veterinary sciences.

On engagement, 34 per cent of submissions were assessed as having high engagement with end users, while 51 per cent were rated medium and 15 per cent were scored as low. Universities were assessed on “narratives” that described their activities, their strategies, and quantitative evidence, covering issues such as public participation via “citizen science”, provision of specialist resources and services, and provision of specialist training. The highest scoring fields included engineering, law and built environment and design.

Universities were also assessed on their approach to impact, via case studies which covered how universities supported collaboration, provided infrastructure, and supported knowledge transfer. Twenty-five per cent of submissions were rated high, 51 per cent were scored medium, and 24 per cent were assessed as low.

Dan Tehan, Australia’s education minister, did not praise universities for their performance in a statement released alongside the results.

“The people who pay for university research – the Australian taxpayers – want to know their money is delivering results that are saving lives, strengthening the economy and improving our quality of living,” Mr Tehan said.

“The transparent reporting of university performance will encourage universities to focus on working with industry and other stakeholders on research projects that deliver real results for real people.”

The results were released days after the publication of Australia’s main research assessment, Excellence in Research for Australia, and in the wake of a row over the vetoing of humanities research grants by Simon Birmingham, Mr Tehan’s predecessor. Mr Birmingham said that he made “no apologies for ensuring that taxpayer research dollars weren’t spent on projects that Australians would rightly view as being entirely the wrong priorities”.

Mr Tehan has since introduced a “national interest test” which grant applications must pass if they are to win funding.

However, sector leaders have questioned whether the Engagement and Impact Assessment will add anything valuable to the debate and have expressed concern about increased bureaucracy.

Kim Carr, the shadow minister for science and research, told deputy vice-chancellors for research attending a Universities Australia event on 28 March that he did not “take the view – as the government does – that our low rates of collaboration [with industry] are your fault”.

Mr Carr described the new assessment as “wasteful and inefficient”.

“I am not satisfied that the [Australian Research Council] has been allowed to, or has been given time to get this right,” Mr Carr said. “If I was minister I would never have allowed such a half-baked scheme to be implemented.

“And if it doesn’t measure up, it won’t happen again.”

The results come as the UK prepares to launch a similar exercise, the knowledge exchange framework. Unlike the Australian assessment, however, the UK audit is likely to be used as the basis for allocating some funding.

chris.havergal@timeshighereducation.com

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