There has been much speculation regarding the impact agenda and the REF. This weeks Times Higher has fleshed out more details as to how impact will be assessed within the 2014 REF. One of the ways this is mooted to happen is by increasing the panel memberships from outside Academia. This weeks Times Higher states that:
People from businesses and the public sector will be represented, according to a statement issued by the Higher Education Funding Council for England, as well as figures from charities, thinktanks, the media, libraries, galleries and polling organisations.
Hefce says there will be “significantly more” research users on panels compared with the final RAE.
The users “will help to assess the impact that universities’ research has had on the economy, society and culture”, it adds.
No doubt there is value in creating impact within these other institutions and organisations but to my mind, this isn’t the impact that matters and the one that needs encouragement and promotion. After all, it is not charities, libraries and galleries that fund academia! Whilst the way in which higher education is funded has changed dramatically, directly and indirectly, much of the money is coming from the public.
I believe that a radical reappraisal of impact is needed, especially within Social Sciences. This is needed in order to move away from one based in neoliberal principles to a more egalitarian one that encourages academics to ensure that the findings of their work are available and accessible to those who are the subjects of their study. I blogged last week about accessibility and how best to make research accessible so will avoid a repetition of that argument, however I strongly believe that it is the duty of the sociologist is to educate publics about the social world they exist within and to enable them to better understand the world around them. To only offer this knowledge to a select few who can access academic journals or who can penetrate complex technical language and rhetoric is, in my mind abusing their skills and those who they research. Not that I blame the current lack of public engagement wholly on those academics, after all it is not the impact being measured so they are not given the time and the space to do it. The system needs to encourage it if it is to happen on a meaningful scale across the board (this is not to dismiss those projects that already successfully do this, but not every project has the resources to be able to do this and my argument is that they should).
We are in an age where information can be shared in a multitude of ways at minimal costs and with relative ease. No longer is the only way to distribute text through printed books and journals, no longer do we have to rely on a small number of state broadcast and regulated channels to distribute video. Surely it is the duty of those measuring academic impact to ensure that academics are sharing their findings with the widest publics possible in a meaningful way, not limiting the definition of impact to one which privileges the impact of their work to industry, quangos and other institutions.
In order to provide this resource and space for academics to better engage with publics and create meaningful impact, I argue that a reassessment of the central tenets of what impact actually has meaningful value to society needs to take place. This reassessment of impact cannot happen without pressure; after all there is monetary value in the current definition of impact. On this basis, it is in the government’s interest to encourage it as it can help universities to be of greater economic value. The increasing commoditisation and marketisation of education needs to be continually opposed by academics and in my mind one important way of doing this is by subsuming the impact agenda and turning it on itself, creating a parallel discourse of a more meaningful impact, one that brings the value of the research back to those whom are the subject of the research by educating and working with them to inform and induce change in ways which improve their lives.