The biggest impact of university research is on teaching

Take-up of research by business is difficult to catalyse and record. Far better to focus on the impact central to universities’ missions, say Vince Mitchell and William Harvey

November 29, 2018
Chinese researchers
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This year’s launch of Australia’s first national “engagement and impact” assessment exercise (EI) is a reminder that academics are under increasing pressure to do research that is seen to benefit society in some way.

The US, too, is exploring ways of analysing the inputs, outputs and outcomes from government investment in research, via its STAR metrics programme. And, of course, the influence of impact on the scoring for the UK’s research excellence framework has been increased from 20 per cent in 2014 to 25 per cent in 2021.

However, achieving impact in the form recognised by the government and funding bodies is hard. In our field, business and management studies, the most common tactic is to stage outreach events, to which business representatives are invited. But this takes time and money, which aren’t easy to find. Moreover, it is not easy to get organisations to come to listen, let alone engage, however “audience friendly” the topic may be thought to be.

Even when engagement does occur, it can still be arduous to document evidence of impact. There is an attitude that knowledge dissemination from universities is a one-way street, with no obligation on the part of the organisation to do more than listen. 

There is, however, a much cheaper, less stressful and more effective form of impact that academics already deliver and that is front and centre of universities’ missions. It is the delivery of teaching.

Teaching delivers considerable impact via its influence on the next generation entering the workplace. The research findings that academics pass on put the hundreds of thousands of students who graduate each year in the UK alone in a position to effect considerable improvements when they enter the professional environment, whether that be in relation to the economy, society, culture, policy, health, environment or quality of life.

Of course, in order to count as examples specifically of research impact, the teaching would need to be clearly grounded in the lecturer’s specific research outputs. And, in the case of the REF, those outputs would need to surpass the quality threshold. But linking teaching more closely to research would have the added advantage of improving the ability of institutions to differentiate themselves through offering undergraduate modules and postgraduate courses in topics that directly align to their specific research.

It would also remind students that they are benefiting from being taught by world-leading thinkers in their fields, potentially spurring them to work harder and achieve more. And it would boost the job satisfaction of the academics themselves, increasing their motivation to “own” courses and to devote more time and effort to their students’ learning.

There is, admittedly, a danger that emphasising the impact of teaching could introduce a perverse incentive for academics to crowbar their own research into their lectures even when it is not relevant. But since such research would be unlikely to make an impression on students, it would not lend itself to any impact case study attempting to demonstrate the use that former students made of university research in their working lives.

Teaching that scored well would be teaching that was instrumental in the development of skills to solve problems and to create novel solutions. One example is the University of Exeter’s Grand Challenges scheme, in which undergraduates work on real-world problems identified by researchers, such as ocean plastics and gender equality, and come up with practical, evidence-based solutions.

To be fair, “impact on students, teaching” is acknowledged for the first time in the latest REF guidelines, but that way of putting it seems to relate to things such as changes to curricula; we suggest that case studies need to follow that impact further, beyond the lecture hall or seminar room. 

It bears repeating that the impact of research-led teaching is a crucial function of universities. Greater formal acknowledgement of that would be of great benefit to academics, students and society. Institutions need to show the way by submitting examples of it to both the EI and the REF.

Vince Mitchell is professor of marketing at the University of Sydney Business School and William Harvey is associate dean (research and impact) at the University of Exeter Business School. Their article, “How preferable and possible is management research-led teaching impact?”, is published in the journal Management Learning.

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