At a recent UUK event on “Universities, Communities and Business”, one of the main stage speakers dared to say that he thought that universities were well funded, at which point a witty member of the audience joked that he should be frog-marched from the building! Whether or not you agree with the speaker, universities have successfully demonstrated that investment of public funding delivers returns for society in supporting economic development, contributing to culture and driving innovation – in short, we make a difference. Arguments for the retention of the Higher Education Innovation Fund, made by AURIL and other partners, have been successful and announcements are currently being made about the significant European Structural Investment Funds (ESIF) which are being granted to Universities to enable local SMEs access research, expertise and facilities and support innovation and business growth.
Despite the current confidence being shown to the University sector as effective stewards of public resources, it is clear that we will need to continuously demonstrate that investment in us delivers tangible results. The 2014 Research Excellence Framework measured, for the first time, the impact of research and the resulting databank of 6700 case studies makes compelling reading – although I can’t say that I have read them all yet! Indeed, the weighting that is given to demonstrating impact has led to a new role being created on campuses across the UK – that of the Research Impact Officer whose job it is to collect and collate evidence of research impact in preparation for the next research assessment. It was interesting to hear from one Head of Knowledge Exchange in a large university who was struggling to recruit to more traditional business development positions as, he believed, these new roles were seen to be more attractive.
University partners in England will be aware that a new tool for measuring impact is soon to be launched by HEFCE. The KE performance framework and accompanying guide to KE good practice were requested in the Government’s science and innovation strategy in December 2014. AURIL has been close to its development and the framework is likely to cover a range of KE activities including spin outs, licensing, research commercialisation and strategic partnerships.
It will be interesting to see the response to the new framework. In the meantime, an increasing number of universities are developing their own accounts of their economic impact upon their towns, cities, regions and the UK. By examining university expenditure and the expenditure of their staff and students, it clear that universities are making very significant economic contributions, sustaining large numbers of jobs and businesses beyond their college walls. In some cities, universities now play as significant a role in the local economy as some of the former manufacturing industries upon which the cities were built. Indeed, the figures are so impressive – and enormous – that they actually risk becoming less impactful. Does it really matter if the different economic multipliers show a £10m, £50m or even greater variation?
As we continue to find new ways to evidence, collate and demonstrate the considerable impact we are having, I hope that we don’t just get carried away with just demonstrating the big numbers. I hope that we also have the opportunity to celebrate the other ways in which we make a difference: the transforming effect of university education upon those from disadvantage backgrounds, the contribution of staff and student volunteers, investments in the public realm, and the vitality that our cultural events, sports facilities, public lectures and business engagement brings to our communities.
Impact will be a theme running through many of our discussions at the AURIL conference at Edinburgh on the 6th or 7th October. If you believe that you have some interesting examples of how your university is making a difference, we would be pleased to consider your contribution to our conference agenda.
AURIL Council Member and Head of Business Development
Nottingham Trent University