Thursday, 24 September 2015

Education and research have serious impact

A few years ago, a particular word started to appear with increasing regularity in international higher education and research circles. The word was “impact”. Its increasing prevalence derives from the desire, particularly in straitened economic times, to assess the benefits of the funding applied to higher education and research.
The impacts of higher education and research are wide and varied, they take place over different timescales, and in many cases they are difficult to quantify. Despite this, we are seeing many attempts internationally to produce quantitative assessments of these impacts.
Some of these assess the impact of higher education institutions as economic actors, just on the basis of their income and the effect of that income on local and national economies. For major institutions, this can be very significant. An economic impact assessment in 2012 showed the income of the University of Manchester was higher than that of Manchester City Football Club, Manchester United Football Club and Manchester Airport combined. A similar economic impact assessment of University College Dublin launched last May showed the university and its students generate an annual economic impact of €1.3 billion in Ireland, and support about 9,000 jobs.
In the UK, research impact was included for the first time in the 2014 Research Excellence Framework exercise, which governs part of the budget of higher-education institutions. It was assessed through case studies, with institutions submitting descriptions of the impact of particular aspects of their research. This was initially the subject of controversy and nervousness, alleviated somewhat when it became clear the exercise would consider impacts beyond the purely economic.
Close to 7,000 research impact case studies submitted for assessment are now publicly available, telling stories of impact across the economy, society, culture, policy, health and the environment.

Research population

A different approach to research impact assessment, trialled in the US, considers the particular impact that comes in the form of the talented postgraduate and postdoctoral researchers trained through the conduct of research, and the contributions they make in their careers. It examines the breakdown of the research population, and seeks to track the progression of this population over time. In one example in Ireland, a study of more than 11,000 PhD graduates from Irish universities, conducted by Trinity College Dublin with LinkedIn, showed a doubling of PhD graduates in industry from 2000 to 2010.
All of these impact assessment measures are incomplete, and acknowledged as such even by their proponents. At the same time, they are all valuable and important. The benefits of higher education and research are so varied and so significant we need to think carefully about the impacts we seek, and how best they can be delivered.
For a small open economy such as Ireland, the desired impacts will not necessarily be precisely the same as those in larger economies. A number of our higher-education institutions and research funding agencies – most notably Science Foundation Ireland– have been capturing and articulating the impacts of greatest relevance to their mission, but there is no system-wide articulation of impact. The closest we have is the one implicit in the 2012 national research prioritisation exercise, which seeks to target public investment towards “research based on potential for economic return, particularly in the form of jobs”. The rationale is obvious, but it cannot be the sum total of how we define impact.
The most immediately apparent impacts of excellent research may reside in the knowledge economy but, as other international exercises have shown, vital and vibrant impacts are delivered across other areas of society, culture, health, public policy and quality of life. Our reservoir of research expertise allows us to address challenges of particular national significance and to capture the benefits of new opportunities across all these areas. It provides us with the capacity to understand global trends and respond to disruptive change.
Many forms of impact can be derived from research and higher education. A national articulation of our definition of impact and the value we attach to its manifestations will allow us to make informed choices and use our resources to best effect.
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