Higher Education Consulting Group’s Dr Susie Robinson takes a closer look at the ARC engagement and impact exercise

All around the country, universities are busily preparing engagement narratives and impact case studies, ready for ERA submission in May/June. Many are now realising the significant resources required to achieve a really strong portfolio of cases for submission. Those that started the process early are quietly confident, others are feeling a bit more desperate – the deadline looms, the task is large, and teams are anticipating some midnight oil will be burned. The effort is significant, and yet the specific intended outcomes, and indeed the impact of this exercise remain unknown.

The ARC has given guidance on evaluation criteria, and grading – ‘highmedium and low’ (EVERYBODY in the country had a complaint about ‘limitedemerging, and mature’, as used in the pilot exercise!). There is advice about the handling of confidential information (it can be flagged, and handled appropriately prior to the public release of the case studies – a welcome stance, allowing for more wholehearted cooperation in case study preparation from commercially-minded industry partners). But there remain innumerable questions:

  • Could a low-value, small-scale research program that generates a proportionately very high end-value (commercial or otherwise) be judged as more successful than a juggernaut (lots of dollars in, and equivalently lots of value created)?
  • Does a case study have to demonstrate all or most of the suggested approach criteria listed by the ARC to be successfully highly graded, or can a clever collection of specific, innovative novel approaches win the day with panel assessors?
  • How will case studies that chart impact from a team that is newly arrived, or lately departed, from a university, be judged? Or is it safest to steer clear of such potentially complicated territory altogether?
  • And many more that we have pondered, and our university clients have posed.

However, perhaps most importantly, no one knows precisely HOW (or how much) the impact and engagement assessment exercise might matter for the future, in terms of dollars, policies and new initiatives. This time around, there will be no dollars attached to results, but as yet there is no clarity on the matter of future funding flows coupled to a university’s impact and engagement result, and whether other new forms of evaluation, including alternate metrics, might yet be introduced (the final field in the impact case study template continues to cast around for ideas, as happened in the pilot). The government is sending strong policy signals, but the roadmap remains to be written.

Forward-thinking universities should be minded not to sit and await developments, but to drive and shape them. Universities who stand to potentially benefit the most from new funding flows that reward engagement and impact should be busy now, informing themselves on their respective returns-on-investment achieved, and identifying how and where strategic government investment can leverage even further-improved outcomes for taxpayers. Consortiums such as the Australian Technology Network of Universities, representing a key segment of the sector that stands to benefit, should be proactive here.

And, whilst the nation can, and should, learn much from this nationwide capture of success stories, I can’t help but think about the stories of failure and dead-ends that are being shied away from, hidden far from the light of day, and most definitely not profiled in any ARC ERA case study! How we get things wrong, why things didn’t work out as planned, and how best to manage when things get ‘complicated’ can shed as much light, if not more, on what needs to change to improve our performance. Even if the sector has no incentive to share and workshop these failures publicly, they very definitively should be doing it internally. When it comes to research, universities are funded on a reward basis – the best get the money. If we are serious about lifting our game in engagement and impact, perhaps we should all (government, universities and end-user partners) also think about how best to invest to redress underperformance in these areas, rather than simply incorporating a new funding formula with a weighted factor that rewards those who do well, in future funding allocations.

Not to dwell on failure, of course one of the most exciting opportunities arising from the creation of the engagement narratives and impact case studies is how they can be repurposed to inspire, inform and celebrate. These stories can help a potential industry partner understand what the road to impact looks like when working with universities; they should be broadcast to all levels of government, to demonstrate how powerful and effective public policy can be developed, when it is informed by rigorous research and expert advice; and they should inspire early-career researchers (and ideally, when it comes to STEM stories, with a bit of re-writing, as many 8-year-old girls as possible) to imagine a fulfilling life making a difference through research, in partnership with others. Of course, the case studies may need a fair bit of re-writing to be fit for such purposes (the ARC template isclunky); and anyone – marketing and comms teams, academics, speechwriters etc – who do delve into these goldmines of inspiration and success should have ringing in their ears the perfectly-expressed advice from the Chief Scientist, Alan Finkel, who so elegantly said during his recent address to Science Meets Parliament, “Communication is not independent of the audience. Otherwise, it’s not communication, it’s just content.”

A major concern of mine is that, once the deadline has passed and the ERA submissions are done, everyone will simply heave a sigh of relief and go about their business. Until next time. It is my observation that the engagement and impact exercise offers tremendous opportunity for universities to systematically identify what works and what doesn’t in their own unique institution, to capture this, share it across the university, and to collectively address it.

Further, many – if not all – of the case studies, once the approach and impact has been systematically captured, offer valuable intelligence as to best next steps to leverage further value – for example: “This research deeply benefitted policy development by government in x state, or y country, so what can we do to roll out the process to other governments in other states or countries? How can our government relations team help here?” or “Our immersive research-industry training program was critical for success in the research profiled in x case study. Which other areas of the university’s research could we similarly deploy that model in?” or “Our university achieved its best impact successes and return-on-investment through our participation in Cooperative Research Centres. Is a dedicated strategy of priority investment through this impact channel a good approach for us?”.

I have found many of the case studies that I’ve been involved in the development of, to be truly inspirational. We are about to have a national library of such inspiration, when the case studies are compiled into one place. And they are the tip of the iceberg. There are so many more stories to tell, and insights to share. Supporting academics and especially early-career researchers, to build skills in sharing their stories this way is critical.

Campus Morning Mail, in partnership with HECG, is planning to launch an experiential learning program, offering training for academics, from early-career to experienced researchers, in writing their own research engagement and impact story, capturing the why, the how, the trials and tribulations. The participants will be guided by deeply-experienced Campus Morning Mail journalists, Stephen Matchett and David Myton, with additional insights provided by the HECG team into how to cultivate impact throughout the research cycle through an effective communication strategy. Participants in the program will workshop their own chosen research during the program, culminating in publishing their own feature article in Campus Morning Mail. In offering this, we are hoping to support industry-wide skills development, but also, importantly to provide a channel to have that open national conversation about what works and what doesn’t when it comes to achieving end-user impact in research. To register interest in the program, either as an individual, or on behalf of a faculty, research centre or university, get in touch at contact@he-cg.com.

  • Dr Susie Robinson is the CEO of Higher Education Consulting Group (HECG), offering a range of advisory and implementation services within the higher education sector, including co-development of impact case studies with university clients. HECG is working in partnership with Campus Morning Mail to further develop Campus Morning Mail as a knowledge-exchange where university sector leaders (present and future) can congregate to be informed and to share their views and insights. Dr Robinson can be contacted at susie.robinson@he-cg.com.