The Impact Agenda and the Good (Academic) Life

This was the rather unlikely connection suggested in Jonathan Wolff’s Guardian article yesterday. I have massive respect for Wolff, who taught me as an undergraduate and is the only lecturer who has ever consistently held my attention, which left me taking this article more seriously than I otherwise might have. To be fair, he’s not talking about the ‘impact agenda’ as such but rather a broader tendency of which the ‘impact agenda’ can be taken to a bureaucratic and unlikable leading edge. His point is that there is a change taking place in the criteria by which ‘success’ is measured in academic careers. Furthermore, it is a change which is bringing activities motivated by private commitments, often done in private time without recognition, into the sphere of public assessment. In doing so, ‘academic success’ comes closer to life success. Or perhaps life success is being collapsed into career success. I’ll be pondering this for a while:

The final category is a recent innovation, by which I mean that it has crept in over the last 20 years. It goes by various names: knowledge transfer, knowledge exchange, public engagement or impact. Specialists will shudder at my ignorance in lumping all of these together. To transfer knowledge is to take your research and apply it outside an academic context. Knowledge exchange is a less imperialistic version of the same thing, recognising that one might actually learn something oneself in the process. Public engagement can be roughly the same thing yet again, but perhaps with other people’s research rather than your own. As for “impact”, it seems to be whatever the research councils have decided it is this month.

This final category, however, reflects a quiet revolution in the way in which universities conceive of themselves and their contribution. Not so long ago, if you were a school governor, or edited a community newsletter, you kept quiet about it. Either it was regarded as entirely your own affair or, even worse, a distraction from the real business of research and teaching. Now it is public engagement. We seek it out, promote you for it, and crow about it on the university’s website. Cynics might think that it is the invention of web pages, and the need to fill them with something, that has made the difference. Or that it is encouraged only because universities are continually under pressure to demonstrate their “relevance”. But whatever the explanation, it is encouraging that a successful university career is now somewhat closer to a successful life than it once was.

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