University impact requires criticism, rigour, bravery, education

University impact requires criticism, rigour, bravery, education

17 May 2016

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Fellow & Director of Education, Department of International Relations, & School Deputy Director - Education

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The call for universities and academics to ‘have impact’ is important and legitimate, and there is a strong narrative about how in the social sciences they have failed to achieve this.

But I am also struck that a very great number of those who work within my discipline, international relations, already strive to be impactful and indeed often cite the desire ‘to make a difference’ as a key reason to become an academic.

If we want to better improve the impact of academic work we must ask why it is that despite so many attempts to do so, there is still intense dissatisfaction from many within academia and beyond about the current state of affairs.

To understand what is going on we must start with a full account of what impact should be – I do not mean the myriad examples of impact that universities are now collecting. Instead I mean a detailed appraisal of what these examples all rotate around. There are four dimensions to impact that we should foster: criticism, rigour, bravery and education.

If anyone has the opportunity and safety to talk “truth to power” it is the academic.

We are afforded the opportunity of being able to spend years focused on trying to understand in detail the issues and concerns that face us and the world at large. Such insights are often critical of, and seek to subvert, accepted understandings and practices. They are, in other words, inherently political statements that may upset key stakeholders, most notably governments.

Scholarly rigour thus lies at the heart of impact. It is the very process of review, criticism, and revision, sometimes over periods of years, that are the mechanics by which academics improve their understandings and so their ability to generate meaningful impact. Yes there are problems with peer-review, elitist publishers and academic snobbery. But the core idea – that ideas are reviewed by experts and this helps improve your thinking – is a non-negotiable requirement.

Impact requires bravery. In a world as slippery as our own it is very likely that even the smartest of us are going to get a great many things wrong. This is not a sign of failure but a recognition of the nature of the beast itself. To have impact is to stand for something, to believe that your arguments are valid and your endpoints worthwhile.

And impact is education. It does not matter whether we are changing the minds of policymakers, practitioners out in the fields or students in the classroom – the purpose and the result are the same. The entire point of impact is to inform how people think, how they seek to act and illuminate the goals they wish to pursue. Great teachers can provide powerful, perhaps even decisive, influence on people at key moments in their formative years. To say this is not impact is perverse.

So, how can we foster such impact?

Individual academics have a responsibility to both the societies of which they are a part and the stories they study to make sure that their work speaks out on behalf of both. I see no great distinction between theoretical work, abstract work and unpopular topics on the one hand and ‘impact focused work’ on the other.

Some of the most important thinkers in international relations in Australia, Hedley Bull and Coral Bell, saw no distinction between theoretical rigour and making pointed critiques of policy and practice – the former constituted and permitted the latter, and the latter justified and directed the former. Almost all academics should consider with care the value of what they study to a wider audience and should seek to proactively share that knowledge.

But if the onus on individual academics is considerable, it pales in comparison to what needs to be done in the context of academia as a bureaucratic phenomenon with its own internal logics and practices. Put bluntly, the current set up of academic careers is not structured in such a way as to be conducive to the type of impact I have outlined.

The usual response to these complexities is to fall back, completely wrongly, on a heroic vision of the academic – someone who provides world-class research and teaching, unparalleled ability to engage in administration tasks and seamlessly working in lasting impact activities. If we work all hours then yes, we can fit everything in. But while this may be possible for a very few, if impact is so important why would we be happy with this exceptional practice as opposed to changing the rules?

For academia to remain a humane career then we cannot rely on heroes carrying the load for us. If we are all meant to develop impact, then the rules and processes that shape our choices must facilitate, not retard, that.

Ultimately it is a question for government as to how to foster this type of impact, if that is what they truly wish to achieve. The Australian government cannot expect its current mooted reforms, downgrading the importance of publishing in academic platforms when allocating research funds together with some sort of impact assessment exercise, to have any net positive effect. This may help tell the stories of impact already ongoing more clearly, but it will not fundamentally improve how impact is engaged with within universities because it does not change the structural incentives and fears that have brought us to this point.

Finally, government cannot expect academia to provide unproblematic policy delivery advice, and academics cannot expect to reside in splendid isolation from the world that furnishes them with the raw materials for their research.

If we want our universities to generate impact then we must reimagine what those universities are, not out of shame but out of a confident assertion that there is value in research, a belief in excellence and a commitment to academic moral purpose that should shape our careers, not be squeezed into the margins of it when we have time.

Luminaries past and present in my field felt this very much to be the case. In today’s world we owe it to those who come after us to to recommit to this goal.

Dr Mathew Davies is head of the Department of International Relations at the ANU Coral Bell School of Asia Pacific Affairs. This article is based on his presentation at the Bell School’s Horizons seminar series on ‘making today’s universities relevant for tomorrow’, and a shorter version of an article that was first published in The Australian.

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