Lord Mandelson, when Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills, laid down the challenge when he said in 2009 that ‘Universities are not islands; they are not ivory towers, they have to respond to the world around them’. However, much of those responses, according to Ellen Hazelkorn, author of Rankings and the Reshaping of Higher Education, are determined by the system of international university rankings that ‘force institutions and governments to question their standards’. They are a driver of behaviour and of change.
Ellen Hazelkorn, director, Higher Education Policy Research Unit, Dublin Institute of Technology and policy adviser to the Republic of Ireland’s Higher Education Authority, is right to draw attention to the power of rankings to drive certain behaviours. According to Professor Susan Procter, Dean of Research at Buckinghamshire New University’s Faculty of Society and Health and Professor of Clinical Nursing Innovation, the current system used nationally and internationally to rate research has an impact on innovation, societal progress and wealth creation. “As the UK strives to maintain and enhance its place in the world-ranking of universities, metrics relating to the global impact of research become the gold standard of research and of impact, and work at a local level can get squeezed out,” says Prof Procter.
She explains that whilst research at a local level can have far-reaching, global implications, arguing for global impact from a local initiative can be more uncertain. This means that there is less incentive, currently, to engage in impact at the local level since this may not rank highly in terms of the REF definition of the ’reach and significance’ necessary for high-scoring impact. This it seems, can lead to missed opportunities in terms of local wealth creation with local organisations.
The effect on health – Prof Procter’s area of research – can be far-ranging. According to Prof Procter, the transfer of knowledge into the NHS was traditionally regarded as an educational task with the starting point being the research and this then transferred to stakeholders through training, for example. Using this method, highly significant research, whether ‘world-leading’ (4*) or ‘internationally excellent’ (3*) in stature could find its way into the local or national economy and have a potentially positive bearing on practice. However, she points out that there has been a move to conduct knowledge transfer through ‘service improvement’ methodologies in which the learning is conducted in the course of a project with the research innovation embedded in this as a form of ‘Action Learning’. The question is whether work of this kind in the national context of the NHS would be said to have sufficient ‘reach and significance’ to earn a high impact score in REF and international rankings?
â€¨If the answer is positive, then there are incentives for universities to work on service improvements with local and national organisations. If negative? Prof Procter spells out the brutal implications when she speaks of “opportunities missed to create a healthier, more informed society and one in which savings could be created through knowledge transfer”.
This message is an opportune one with a General Election looming on 7 May. The parties have been debating a Tory pledge to inject an additional £8bn into the NHS but sensible knowledge transfer, much of it at local level, could reap huge savings to the service and benefits to the public. Prof Procter is not slow with examples. She said: “A great deal is known about the prevention agenda – how to delay the onset of long-term conditions or obesity for example – but not a great deal is being done with this information. So much of the necessary follow-up needed is at local level, for example, in the area of obesity prevention, supporting people locally in how they shop and organise their day; how they can change their own and their child’s behaviour; and how to change what is offered in schools and shops. More initiatives at the national and local economy could bring an improvement in health and less need for more cash. Where is the party speaking about this?”
Fortunately, for those weary of election fever, it is good to remember the wise words of best-selling Nigerian author, Ifeanyi Enoch Onuoha: “Policies are ephemeral; principles are eternal.” Opening up a debate on the importance of research impact at a local level will bring rewards that will extend into the next Parliament and beyond.
Gloria Moss is Professor of Management and Marketing, Buckinghamshire New University and Visiting Professor at the Paris School of Business.