Bracing for impact may cost sector millions

Universities 'falling over themselves' to hire staff to handle REF case studies. Paul Jump reports

October 11, 2012

The UK higher education sector could spend in excess of £2 million a year on the salaries of staff recruited to help institutions handle the impact element of the research excellence framework.

The figure was revealed by a Freedom of Information request submitted by Times Higher Education to all mainstream UK universities asking how much they are spending to recruit staff to help write impact case studies.

The case studies will form the basis of the assessment of each university's research impact, which will account for 20 per cent of their scores in the 2014 REF.

Of 124 institutions surveyed, 36 have appointed or seconded staff to work at least partly on impact. Four others have employed external consultants and another four are paying graduate interns.

Fifty-nine institutions say they have no plans to recruit anyone, while six are undecided.

Some did not release the information. One, Glasgow Caledonian University, claims that to do so would substantially prejudice its commercial interests.

The 37 universities that have provided salary details for REF-related personnel would commit just over £2.2 million a year between them if all appointees were paid at the top end of their salary scales.

The 25 universities employing staff exclusively to work on impact would spend just over £1.4 million between them under the same circumstances, averaging nearly £52,000 per institution.

Big spenders

Eyebrows were first raised about universities' potential spending on the impact element of the REF earlier this year when University College London advertised for four "editorial consultants" to help its academics prepare impact case studies.

The university confirmed that the posts would cost it up to £163,000 a year.

UCL's vice-provost for research, David Price, said that a combination of academic leaders and professional staff "with a close knowledge of and intellectual focus on the administrative and management process involved" had worked well for the university in the past.

He said that to flourish within the "complex opportunities of the contemporary UK system", universities required "a productive partnership between fine scientists and scholars and outstanding professional support staff".

He added: "Because of its novelty and significance, REF impact assessment brings that need out particularly clearly, but it is far from unusual."

The University of Manchester could be one of the biggest spenders on impact.

Its various faculties plan to hire up to eight people - two of whom will be part-time - with at least some involvement with impact, at a combined cost of up to £212,000.

One faculty is still "considering its options".

A spokesman for the university said: "In the last research assessment exercise, the University of Manchester entered more units of assessment than any other university, so it is not surprising our costs are higher."

He added that the information collected for the REF would also be "useful for a range of management purposes, as we are committed to ensuring that our research achieves impact beyond academia and yields economic, social and cultural benefits whenever the opportunity arises".

Most of those making impact-related appointments are research-intensive universities, although 18 teaching-led institutions have done so as well.

Of the 24 Russell Group and 15 1994 Group institutions, only five do not foresee recruiting staff in this area.

Logical in the circumstances

The REF results will be used to allocate quality-related (QR) research funding, which in the current spending cycle amounts to nearly £1.6 billion a year in England alone.

John Holmwood, co-founder of the Campaign for the Public University and professor of sociology at the University of Nottingham, said that recruiting people to help prepare case studies and share good practice across units of assessment was a "necessary and understandable response to an exercise for which there is no real precedent but significant sums of money at stake".

But he worried about the prospect of university knowledge-transfer offices developing centralised impact strategies that could disadvantage blue-skies research.

Philip Moriarty, professor of physics at Nottingham and an outspoken critic of the impact agenda, agreed that it was not surprising that universities were "falling over themselves" to maximise their scores in the REF's potentially "game-changing" impact element.

But he added: "I find it utterly depressing that what looks like millions of pounds will be spent across the sector in order to fine-tune the arguments for what is an entirely flawed metric in many cases."

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