Rowan Williams decries narrow impact agenda

Former Archbishop of Canterbury says universities are in danger of neglecting their core mission

April 17, 2014

Source: Mark William Penny/

The impact agenda risks causing universities to neglect their core mission to create “intelligent citizens”, the former Archbishop of Canterbury has warned.

In an article in this week’s Times Higher Education, Rowan Williams, who now has the title Lord Williams of Oystermouth, says the most important “bit of impact” universities can have is to educate people who will “ask constructively critical questions in public life”.

But he told THE that the emphasis of research funders on “a very narrow band of research impact” led universities to prioritise its generation, leading to “a particularly functionalist and short-term perspective in both research and teaching”.

Lord Williams, who became master of Magdalene College, Cambridge after stepping down as archbishop at the end of 2012, said that it was “legitimate” for funders to ask for evidence of impact on “a community’s life”. But most working academics found the current metrics by which impact was assessed “difficult to live with because they assume a very short-term frame and a measure that might apply in some areas doesn’t easily apply in others”. He said universities should be permitted to follow museums and galleries in focusing their pursuit of impact on “really making a difference in the community, opening up resources to people, allowing them to expand their own awareness and critical skills and making complex issues accessible”.

He also believed that all university teaching, regardless of subject, should involve more than conveying “a little package of skills”. It should also be about giving students “a set of good questions they might want to be asking”, so that they can “own what they are doing” in the workplace and “see how innovation is possible”. He said the University of South Wales, of which he was inaugurated as chancellor this week, was a good example of an institution with “a really serious footprint in the community”. He hoped to be part of discussions about the future “vision” of the university, created last year from the merger of the University of Glamorgan and the University of Wales, Newport.

“I have the day job, but this is a region and a subject I care very deeply about,” the former Archbishop of Wales said.

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