International Research Conference, Lancaster UK, 18 - 20 July 2016
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Academic Responses to Impact as a New Indicator in Higher Education Research

Catherine O’Connell, Liverpool Hope University,


This paper will report on findings from a study of academic responses to ‘impact’, introduced as a new indicator in the UK Research Excellence Framework in 2010. With the broadened emphasis on research output, environment and impact, there is perceived to have been a proliferation of strategic and tactical responses to the component metrics. Considerable debate has ensued on whether impact, as demonstrated by qualitative case studies, can provide a counter-point to quantitative research outputs and offer a new narrative space for the sector to define broader conceptions of value and purpose than those that are represented in existing research metrics or whether it induces a new form of performativity. A current distortion to understanding and analysis of impact narratives is the lack of granular transparency on the scoring of impact narratives by peer review panels. This creates the potential for a reification of a particular, narrowly defined, concept of impact which is inferred from institutions with consistent ‘4* profiles’.

In respect of research relating to higher education, this new impact indicator poses particular and significant challenges in the requirement to demonstrate impact ‘beyond the academy’, raising important questions regarding who ‘speaks for’ the sector in terms of policy influence and may inadvertently create a hierarchy of influence in field of HE research. Through an analysis of impact cases studies of HE-focused educational research, and interviews conducted with academics engaged in this field of research, the paper seeks to share insights into ways this new indicator is perceived to be influencing perceptions of, and practices relating to, pedagogic and policy-related research relating to the HE sector. The analysis applies an evaluative framework informed by:

• theories of change reflected in the HE impact case studies

• conceptualisations of the policy/practice nexus represented in the REF documentation and submissions

• institutional practices developing in response to particular interpretations of impact as reflected in the narratives of respondents in the study.

This paper relates to the theme of social justice in respect of the narrative space which is perceived to have been created by this impact indicator to reflect a greater diversity of missions across the HE sector.


Research assessment, funding policy, metrics, evaluation

Link to Full Paper


Conference Organisers

Paul Trowler
Lancaster University, UK

Alice Jesmont
Lancaster University, UK

Malcolm Tight
Lancaster University, UK

Paul Ashwin
Lancaster University, UK

Murray Saunders
Lancaster University, UK

Chrissie Boughey
Rhodes University, South Africa

Suellen Shay
University of Cape Town, SA

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