Hefce plan threatens RAE-style nightmare

January 10, 2003

Caroline Davis reports on how we measure up to the challenge of innovation

University managers were warned this week that plans to measure the impact of so-called third-stream funding activities could lead to another research assessment exercise-type nightmare.

Christopher Padfield, director of the corporate liaison office at Cambridge University, said that unless universities had more say in defining third-stream activities, heavy-handed measurement exercises of impact by the Higher Education Funding Council for England could result in skewed priorities and game-playing, as has been the case with the RAE.

"I am worried that Hefce will plump for a simplistic metric such as the number of spin-out companies," he said. "What is at issue are the complex processes by which universities achieve social and economic impacts within society, beyond the core business of teaching," Dr Padfield told Hefce's first conference to address third-stream activities, held at the University of Surrey.

"The process of defining 'third stream' and devising metrics for it has become a major strategic exercise that will have a profound impact on how universities see their missions in future," he said.

With sessions covering everything from how to attract venture capital to volunteers visiting prison inmates, delegates grumbled that even the conference title, "Higher Education Working with Business and the Community", implied a lack of definition of what third-stream activities entailed.

Initially, they were defined as activities funded by neither the funding councils nor the research councils. This soon became synonymous with wealth creation, emphasising links with business or commercialisation activities.

Academics in the arts and humanities argued that their research was equally valuable. But they were excluded from funding initiatives as these focus on exploiting research in science and technology. They said that although their activities added to the country's cultural wealth, their outputs could not be gauged financially.

Hefce chairman David Young said the arts and humanities were areas where more needed to be done. He said he wanted a wider range of government departments to get involved.

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