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Telling the world why Universities matter

Demonstrating the impact that Universities have on the economy and society is high on government agenda: RCUK have introduced impact plans to encourage academics to think about their impact at the outset of research and Hefce are introducing an assessment of impact into the Research Excellence Framework (which will replace the RAE). Measuring research impact is fundamentally fraught with problems – research can take decades (if not centuries) to reach its tangible impact, types of impact vary hugely depending on discipline and do not necessarily have a monetary value. To start tackling the many issues, Hefce are piloting their proposed impact assessment in the coming months to inform how impact could robustly be assessed as part of the REF. In parallel to the impact pilot, Hefce and UUK are also piloting ‘Wellings Benefit Statements’ that could also shed light on the issue of impact assessment.

In 2008, Professor Paul Wellings, Vice-Chancellor of Lancaster University, published a report commissioned by the Secretary of State which reviewed the area of intellectual property and research benefits. The review highlighted the need to demonstrate how Universities contribute to a broad range of benefits to the economy and society,through maximising the impact of their research. He suggested that statements of beneficial economic and social outcomes could build the confidence of society in the value of HEIs. These Wellings Benefit Statements, as they are now called, could be a tool to demonstrate to the taxpayer, funders, industry or students that money put into Universities is put to the best possible use in the interests of all in society. Depending on the success of the pilot and the views after the next general election, it is possible that the Benefit Statements will become compulsory for all Universities in 2011.

Over 25 Universities,including my own institution Oxford, have volunteered for pilot exercise. It is certainly going to be a challenge – the contributions to society from the higher education sector are so rich, complex, wide-reaching and difficult to distil into key messages, especially at larger institutions. A summary of all our benefits to society could be a 100 page volume in itself – and I’m sure no politician would read that. Hefce have asked us to focus our messages by choosing audiences to target (perhaps the general public, policy makers, local community or businesses) and types of benefits to showcase. A typology for knowledge based benefits to society is emerging – it includes categories such as supporting society to debate, knowledge access, stimulating economic or social development, supporting public policy, HE-community research and student community volunteering. A representative from BIS has already describe the draft typology as ‘excellent, inspiring even’ while still encouraging Universities to think openly and broadly about their benefit to society. Choosing which audience to target our message will also be key and we are being encouraged to choose the audience we currently find it most difficult to engage with.

The ultimate plan is that Hefce and UUK will assimilate the pilot institution contributions into a few overarching key messages that can be fed back to Treasury with supporting case studies and metrics. Meanwhile the pilot institutions will be left to convert their Benefit Statements into some sort of communication back to their intended audiences. Universities, and the sector as a whole, still have a lot to learn about communication with the outside world. Newer Universities seem be a lot more active in their marketing (I recall the sign at Cambridge Railway Station that reads ‘Cambridge – Home of Anglia Ruskin University’) whereas here in Oxford much of the local community have no idea that the museums and botanic gardens are even Oxford University facilities. The Benefit Statements initiative will hopefully give us the support to communicate in an effective and appropriate way and the flexibility to target the groups who matter to us.

There is also a danger that Universities concentrate on showcasing benefits that are easy to describe,like public engagement. We run the risk of Disneyfying University research and doing more harm than good in an attempt to communicate more effectively with the public. The biggest impact that Universities have are not straightforward stories to tell.

There are many challenges ahead – balancing depth of case studies with range of activities while keeping the document short and engaging, understanding the breadth of knowledge based benefits, providing useful metrics and communication channels.Some of these are similar obstacles facing the REF impact assessment so it would not surprise me if some of the findings of the Benefit Statements pilot also feed into how the REF will work in practice.