In all the restructuring of higher education in recent years, the primacy of the message about needing to ensure impact from research has remained consistent.
Impact is here to stay. Academics across the country are penning “pathways to impact” statements when applying for grants. Many institutions are sitting on “impact acceleration accounts” and figuring out the best way to spend the cash. Pro-vice chancellors for research up and down the country are sweating over huge piles of draft impact case studies in preparation for the Research Excellence Framework 2021. And hopefully, in amid all of this, some actual impact is happening.
There are different types of impact. Each requires different approaches and outcomes are measured in different ways. Universities are spending a small proportion of their impact funding to develop professional support structures aimed at helping academics generate that impact. Specialist support for business impact and commercialisation has been common in UK universities for more than 20 years, and communications experts and those supporting public engagement have been growing in number and sophistication for some time. But the new kids on the block are those of us supporting impact in public policy.
I’m a keen enthusiast of reports berating the government for not doing enough to bring evidence into policymaking. In my previous life in what was then the Office for Science and Technology, such reports came along with predictable regularity. But almost all of them focus on the government’s demand for evidence, with a kind of tacit assumption that there is a perfect system within universities to supply such evidence in the format and timescale needed.
Moving into the university sector from government in 2010, I discovered how far from the truth that was. The available resources in HEIs were not designed to deliver evidence. There was little incentive for academic staff (in terms of money, time, reputation or promotion) to engage with policymakers. There was a lack of understanding about what policymakers actually did. Many felt that any evidence provided was always ignored anyway, and there were even some unkindly stereotypes and caricatures of civil servants.
Overall, the culture of Whitehall and Westminster – its pace, its small p and big p politics, its susceptibility to change, and the revolving carousel of policy actors – are a challenge for the academy to understand and work with. There were, or course, academics who bucked the trend, who had excellent links with government or Parliament and who were regularly called on for advice. But they were the exception, not the rule.
REF 2014 and the (20% of funding) impact juggernaut has changed all that. With REF 2021 having an even larger focus on impact (25%), interest among university executives in the public policy agenda has never been higher. Many universities, my own included, are searching hard for public policy case studies – and trying to identify what a 4* looks like. Creating policy impact is hard enough, but evidencing it can be even harder.
And there’s an interesting fact for HEIs and REF assessors to ponder – the highest quality policy impact does not necessarily come from the highest quality research. This is definitely not an area reserved for the Golden Triangle (Oxford, Cambridge and London) or the Russell Group. There are hours of exquisite drafting and redrafting to look forward to over the next two years to secure the pot at the end of the quality-related (QR) funding rainbow, and policy impact will be a part of that.
A new profession emerges
Beyond the agonies of REF, there’s also more cash up for grabs in the policy space. Higher education innovation funding (HEIF) and impact acceleration accounts are set-piece funds that can be used, and impact activities can be costed into regular grants from the research councils and others. While it varies across councils and disciplines, funders are increasingly expecting some sort of impact plan, and are prepared to (and indeed expecting to) fund it. Policy impact is no longer a niche activity – it’s becoming mainstream.
All of which explains why so many universities have begun experimenting with public policy support functions. Some of these are standalone groups, others fall within research support services, and some are offshoots of corporate affairs or communications. Sometimes they are university-wide, sometimes they are focussed around a single faculty. They are working from the evidence supply side by helping to take research evidence to policymakers, and from the demand side by engaging directly with government to identify what it needs. In between, they are training staff and students in how to engage with policymakers, arranging secondments, bringing policymakers to campus, and organising policy showcase events.
While the size and remit of these policy support functions varies considerably, the one thing that links them is that they are all new. Very few have an inbox older than five years. For those of us in this space, there are two important implications of this.
The first is that ours is the generation that is identifying and developing best practice – which is a polite way of saying that we are still working out exactly what we are doing.
The second implication is that no one else knows what we are doing either, not in our own universities, and not in Whitehall, Parliament, devolved nations, local government, or internationally. We have a job of work to do to make those links, even with partners that are evidence-hungry and actively seeking to engage with universities.
This new profession within universities is beginning to grow, and it’s unsurprising that over the last two or three years we’ve found each other, and begun to share experiences as part of an informal network. Of more surprise has been some strong feedback from colleagues in both government and Parliament that they’d really value the ability to interact with a body representing several universities, to help build links between policymakers and universities, and to use some of the expertise we’ve built up individually to make the process smoother and more productive. Those bodies have professionals who are trying to do what we are doing in reverse – building links out from government into academic institutions. They don’t want to have the same conversations with several universities, nor struggle through similar logistical issues on multiple occasions.
Birth of a new network
Which brings us to the newly formed Universities Policy Engagement Network (UPEN). It’s a group of universities with evidence-policy brokerage functions which are joining together – to learn from each other, and to better engage policy partners. It’s early days, but already we are arranging collective meetings with government departments to discuss specific issues where evidence is needed. We are also looking to represent the policy evidence brokerage function that’s emerging across universities. We are sharing best practice. We are creating mechanisms for government and Parliament colleagues to have a single portal to contact several universities, to ensure a wider range of expertise is engaged. And, if we can crack the nut of evidencing policy impact, we may put a smile on the otherwise worried faces of REF impact champions across the country.
UPEN is not an exclusive club, it’s a collective effort – so if public policy impact is what gets you up in the morning, then please give us a shout.