An established discourse within UK higher education institutions has developed around the pursuit of “academic excellence with impact”. However, the everyday reality is that, in terms of institutional support and opportunities, the impact element is not as embedded as that of academic excellence. Carlos Galán-Díaz has adapted the EDGE Tool, developed to assess universities’ strategic and practical support for public engagement, to research impact activities and collected data on the degree to which impact is ingrained within the purpose, processes, and people of institutions. Findings do indeed show that institutions are still at the relatively early stages of implementing the mechanisms and governance necessary for impact support and development.

The publication of initial decisions on the Research Excellence Framework 2021 offered (some) clarity to a previously uncertain higher education sector.  HEFCE confirmed that weightings are to change from those used for the 2014 exercise: outputs will account for 60% of the assessment (down from 65%), impact for 25% (up from 20%), with environment unchanged at 15%. Amongst the many refinements are provisions to ensure impact is captured in multiple and diverse pathways, including a specific section of the environment template requesting evidence of “the unit’s approach to enabling impact”.

Those in support roles must operate in the knowledge that opportunities and financial support for impact in UK higher education institutions are, on average, more limited than those in place to encourage academic excellence (although at the University of Glasgow we are fortunate to have significant resources devoted to encouraging research impact). This is part of an “awkward zone of encounter”; a term coined by Kirsty Holstead to be applied to situations where there seems to be uncomfortable engagement between established and nascent discourses. The awkward zone of encounter for the impact agenda occurs when the well-established “academic excellence with impact” discourse confronts the everyday reality that the impact element is not as embedded as the academic excellence element, as far as institutional support and opportunities go.

In this post I’d like to explore the extent to which HEIs support impact activities. The data presented and discussed was collected during this summer’s ARMA 2017 conference in Liverpool using a version of the National Co-ordinating Centre for Public Engagement’s “EDGE Tool”, adapted to an impact context. The EDGE Tool, when applied to public engagement, requires institutions to score themselves according to nine dimensions of strategic and practical support, which fall equally into three categories: Purpose (which comprises the dimensions of mission, leadership, and communication); Processes (recognition, support, learning); and People (staff, students, public). The scores an institution receives correspond to the following descriptions:

  1. Embryonic (institutional support is patchy or non-existent, although some activity is underway);
  2. Developing (some support has been put in place, but in a relatively unsystematic and non-strategic fashion);
  3. Gripping (the institution is taking steps to develop more systematic and strategic support);
  4. Embedding (the institution has put in place strategic and operational support).

It has been used in strategic development by several universities, particularly as part of the Catalyst Seed Fund programme.

The EDGE Impact tool

Applied to impact, the EDGE tool consists of an identical matrix – using the same dimensions and categories – that allows users to consider the level of strategic and practical support an institution offers for impact activities. Again, each of the dimensions is to be rated as either Embryonic (1), Developing (2), Gripping (3), or Embedding (4):

Table 1: The EDGE Impact tool

Data and results

59 attendees responded to the EDGE impact tool, with 49 disclosing institutional details (41 from English universities, three each from Australasia and Scotland, one from Wales, and one from Northern Ireland. Ten responses were anonymised). Once multiple institutional entries were controlled for (by averaging them into a single composite score) there were 38 institutional responses represented. To maintain anonymity, the 38 responses will be treated in terms of the top 10% and the bottom 10% average scores:

Table 2: Responses to each of the nine dimensions by the 38 sample institutions. Average scores are given overall, and for the bottom 10% and top 10% respectively.

The results show that the 38 participating institutions are, on average, somewhere between Developing and Gripping across all nine dimensions. It is worth highlighting that the reported dimensions that are closer to Gripping on the EDGE continuum are those of Mission and Support, whereas those that are positioned squarely at Developing are Recognition and Students. A visualisation of the results can be seen below:

Figure 1: Spidergram visualising responses to each of the nine dimensions by the 38 sample institutions. Average scores are given overall, and for the bottom 10% and top 10% respectively.

Discussion

So, my contention that there is an awkward zone of encounter with regards to the impact agenda is evidenced, to some extent. On average, institutions are still at the relatively early stages of implementing and adopting the mechanisms and governance necessary for impact support and development, even at top-performing institutions. While everyone is adept at navigating the impact agenda discourse (Purpose category), the appetite for making it everyday practice varies considerably across different institutions (Process and People categories). Naturally, institutions will tailor and invest according to their priorities, and the data seems to suggest some patterns to their impact journeys.

Among the top 10% of institutions, the dimensions reported as near-Embedded are Learning, Communication, Staff, and Support, suggesting that the groundwork (Process and People) has been done and they are moving towards incorporating Impact into institutional policies (Purpose). The bottom 10% of institutions show almost the opposite, with activity reported as Developing in the Public, Leadership, and Mission dimensions, and the remainder still in the Embryonic stages, likely suggesting an approach where the “quick wins” are taken on board first and the infrastructure to support impact is still being developed.

The data also shows an interesting challenge: how to provide opportunities and support for impact to students. Overall, this dimension is only at the Developing stage and represents an area where an important gap could (and should) be met. This is an excellent opportunity to influence thousands of future researchers but most importantly future generations that will undergo evaluations similar to the REF. (Some responses did clarify that there is occasional support offered to postgraduate students but rarely to undergraduates.)

In brief, this study reveals that the level of preparedness regarding impact support in HEIs is on an improving trajectory towards being embedded. My view is that the biggest challenges are of impact-proofing the next generation (Students) and rewarding impact activities appropriately (Recognition). The former will pave the way for future evaluations, while the latter will allow HEIs to maintain momentum and support impact activities with actual recruitment, promotion, workload plans, and performance rewards (prizes and awards already exist but are not always followed by actual rewards).

The author would like to thank Kirsty Holstead and Rose-Marie Barbeau for their continued support when discussing impact issues, including this post; and also Saskia Walcott, who provided timely and constructive feedback at and after the ARMA conference.

Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the LSE Impact Blog, nor of the London School of Economics. Please review our comments policy if you have any concerns on posting a comment below.

About the author

Carlos Galán-Díaz is an environmental psychologist currently employed as Research Impact Officer at the College of Social Sciences at the University of Glasgow. His research expertise includes impact evaluation, monitoring and reporting; perspective-taking; well-being, and behaviour change.

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