Make a difference, please

January 2018

With the recently completed pilot of the ARC's Engagement and Impact Assessment (EIA) continues the push for cultural change within our universities.

Inducing a more entrepreneurial culture in our universities has been a major ambition of the current Australian Government.

Two years ago, the National Innovation and Science Agenda laid out a path for that change, within a broader framework of initiatives designed to boost innovation in Australia.

Last year the Government introduced new block grant allocations to overcome the limited cross-fertilisation between Australian businesses and universities.

To a large part they will now be based on income universities generate from competitive grants, and on income they receive from partners outside academic research, such as industry.

With the EIA there will be another incentive for more applied university research.

Now fully operational, it will complement the ARC's Excellence in Research Australia (ERA) initiative, which will be in its fourth round in 2018.

And similar to ERA, the EIA will also use reputation rather than money as a driver of change.

Block grant reform

Block grants are the second tier of university research funding complementing competitive grants.

They are meant to help universities with the indirect costs of research (e.g. infrastructure), including from higher degree by research students.

But the Government is now using them also to induce behavioural change:

With the new block grant arrangements, the previous six schemes are now replaced by two: the Research Support Program (RSP) and the Research Training Program (RTP), which in 2018 will together provide more than $1.9 billion.

The individual share of institutions will be largely based on the income from competitive grants and, in roughly equal measure, income from engagement.

However, the total income universities generate from end-users is already a lot more than from competitive grants, and according to Professor Monro, deputy vice chancellor for research at the University of South Australia, this means that universities will get significantly less for each dollar generated from engagement partners than from competitive grants.

And as total engagement income universities generate increases, the amount an individual university gets for its engagement can even diminish unless it increases its share in the engagement income pie.

To cushion the impact on universities, there will also be a transition period until 2021.

The ARC is confident that its assessment indicators, tested and refined in the 2017 pilot, will provide a comprehensive picture of university engagement with non-academic sectors, and also canvass the impact of these activities.

For the first part, the measurement of engagement may be on solid grounds, taking into account metric indicators, such as the income generated from working with non-academic partners, but also considering narratives.

Measuring impact may be more contentious, also as translational outcomes of research, such as income from a product, can take a long time.

The UK example Pathways to Impact collects for its assessment a large numbers of case studies, but the ARC, aware of the problems with this approach, opted to limit the number of such demonstrations of impact a university can submit.

Time will tell whether this will work, and the adopted approach of the EIA is likely to evolve over time.

In any case, with their reputation on the line, universities will find it hard to ignore its outcome.

And in that way EIA's may be more effective than the new block grant arrangements in driving cultural change.

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