Research intelligence - No Frozen assets, but plenty to see

The Open University's pro v-c for research on impact, doctorates and the digital space. Paul Jump reports

December 8, 2011



Credit: BBC
Audiences, audiences, everywhere...The Open University's BBC TV series Frozen Planet was deemed ineligible for the REF despite being watched by 8 million people


"When they heard about the impact agenda, a lot of people at The Open University thought we would do great across the board because of all this telly stuff. But even though Frozen Planet reaches 8 million people, for the REF that is not impact."

Tim Blackman, The Open University's new pro vice-chancellor for research and scholarship, wryly described the ineligibility for submission to the research excellence framework of the institution's Sir David Attenborough-fronted co-production with the BBC as "interesting".

In an interview with Times Higher Education, the former director of Durham University's Wolfson Research Institute said he was "pretty comfortable" with the impact agenda and accepted that its demonstration had to involve more than mere dissemination: "The principle that impact is about demonstrating change is right and fair."

But Professor Blackman, who took up his new position at the beginning of October, said it was "unfortunate" for the university that the success of TV programmes it is associated with (such as Frozen Planet and Coast) in attracting people from non-traditional backgrounds into higher education fell foul of the REF's refusal to consider impact on an institution's own students.

TV's power to recruit students is among the issues that The Open University's academics have studied as part of the "scholarship" it carries out to inform its own practice; other issues include how students learn and why they drop out. But the research is often written for internal consumption alone and so is also ruled out of the REF by the framework's exclusive focus on published, peer-reviewed work.

Professor Blackman, whose own field is social policy, disagreed that every scholarly project should be followed by "a number of weeks formatting (the findings) into a style a journal would want to see", and lamented the fact that research was often no longer relevant to the policy agenda at the end of the two years that journal publication can take.

But he said it was his job to encourage the university's academics to turn more of their work into traditional papers. He also wanted to use the institution's own repository to make more of its scholarship quickly available.

He envisaged it adopting the approach of online journals such as PLoS ONE, which only assess submissions for methodological robustness, allowing readers to comment on or score them themselves.

Although it would be "very damaging" for the REF to be "the only definition of scholarship", it was "very much" on Professor Blackman's radar and he was determined that The Open University should match its performance in the 2008 research assessment exercise, when it ranked alongside the universities of Reading, Leicester and Dundee.

This was important because many of the institution's full-time PhD students - who, unlike its undergraduates, are selected on merit - were drawn by "traditional" academic factors such as the institution's reputation.

He said that he does not intend to "headhunt" prominent academics ahead of the REF, but wanted always to recruit "the best people". He was encouraged that all six shortlisted applicants for a recent professorship at the institution had chairs at "good universities".

He was also concerned to prevent other institutions poaching The Open University's scholars - although its culture meant that "we wouldn't go as far as some possibly do in terms of golden handcuffs".

'Digital research environment'

Professor Blackman said that the institution was busy applying what it had learned about supporting part-time undergraduates to part-time research students, most of whom work remotely: "In many ways, one of our part-time students has more contact [with tutors] than a conventional full-timer - but it is by email and telephone a lot of the time."

For him, the creation of such a "digital research environment" could be the solution to guaranteeing the quality of research degrees across the UK - which remains an issue for students outside research council-funded doctoral centres.

For that reason, he described the Economic and Social Research Council's rejection earlier this year of The Open University's joint bid with the University of East Anglia to become a doctoral training centre as a "missed opportunity".

He did not disagree with the ESRC's aspiration to make sure doctoral students worked in "suitable" research environments.

But budgetary pressures meant it had been unable to fund all the bids the referees - of whom he was one - had deemed to have met its quality threshold.

This meant The Open University had unfairly missed out not just on ESRC studentships, but also on the "kitemark" they constituted.

"A more appropriate approach would have been to recognise the research environment on a threshold judgement and then think about how studentships are allocated...rather differently," he said.

Harnessing the power of electronic media is also at the heart of Professor Blackman's "developmental agenda" for the institution's research, and he hopes it will earn the same "worldwide reputation" for e-research as it has for e-learning.

"We should more and more see the web as our research environment and become world leaders in terms of methodological innovations in how it is used," he said.

Another area on which Professor Blackman is focusing attention is diversifying The Open University's research income, which stands at around £15 million a year - not least because even if it does better in the REF than it did in the RAE, he is "prepared" for that still to translate into less quality-related (QR) income, for which "the bottom rungs of the ladder are moving up".

He also wants to "leverage" more of the university's £10 million annual QR allocation, and believes it can emulate other universities in doubling it. To do so, he aims to reduce the amount of QR and teaching income The Open University makes available internally to conduct research and encourage its academics to apply in greater numbers and more often for research council grants. Currently, only a minority ever submit an application.

Such an aspiration is unlikely to warm hearts at the research councils, which are keen for universities to cut back on their applications to improve overall success rates.

Several are even contemplating following the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council's lead and imposing sanctions on unsuccessful individuals or institutions.

Professor Blackman admitted he needed to be "very conscious" of such measures. According to THE's annual analysis of research council figures ("Grant awards send message to think big", 24 November), The Open University's success rate for the financial year 2010-11 was just 20 per cent. But he does not think it is "in any kind of danger zone".

"There has been a bit of a tradition [here] of doing research that doesn't need a lot of external funding, but writing it up as very good academic outputs," he said. "We have to get applying for grants more into the culture of our academic staff, [making it] part of the day job - not a discretionary extra."

paul.jump@tsleducation.com.

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