African, Asian, and Australian deans’ standpoints on research impact seem to converge

Published On: 29 November 2022|

The recent Higher Education Leadership and Management (HELM) Summit 2022 included a session where three universities’ deans from three different time zones discussed the challenges of mid-level managers in higher education, moderated by another dean in a fourth time zone.

Despite their diverse institutions and contexts, many of their ideas about research impact converged.

“There’s a real need to ensure that we don’t create a culture where academics just write for other academics,” said Professor Kumar Ramakrishna, who is the Provost’s Chair in National Security Studies and Associate Dean in charge of Policy Studies, as well as Head of the International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research, in the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS) at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore. RSIS is a graduate school with no undergraduates but about 250 postgraduate students. With about 70 senior researchers and 30 staff, the institution also functions as a think tank.

“We don’t want research to sit on the shelves of libraries or in journals, but to translate into projects that improve and impact societies and communities, affect industry and government,” said Professor Nalini Moodley-Diar, Executive Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Design at the Tshwane University of Technology (TUT) in South Africa. The faculty has five departments, 11 programmes, about 2000 students and 110 full-time staff as well as many part-time staff.

“We all want to improve the world — but what aspects? What problems are we going to address?” asked Professor Andrea Rizzi, Associate Professor of Italian Studies and Associate Dean Research in the Faculty of Arts at the University of Melbourne, Australia, and Convener of Associate and Deputy Deans of the Australasian Council of Deans of Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities. His faculty at Melbourne has five schools, about 5000 students, 600 academic staff, and four other associate deans responsible for Education, Partnerships, Indigenous, and Diversity and Inclusion.

Professor Dolores Guerrero, who is Dean and President of the Council of Colleges of Arts and Sciences (CCAS) at Texas A&M University – Kingsville (TAMUK) in the US, chaired the discussion. She said the engagement highlighted, overall, that the institutions, even though unique in their own ways, had common themes and challenges.

In turn, Dr Oliver Seale, Director of HELM at Universities South Africa, said the deliberations “speak volumes of how one can collaborate when you have these commonalities in purpose, commonalities in objectives, and commonalities in mission”.


Research impact at RSIS in Singapore

Professor Kumar Ramakrishna (right) said while RSIS had to ensure the academic credibility of its researchers’ output, it also had to ensure its research was accessible to a wider community of both policy practitioners as well as the public.

“One of the big challenges people in my position face is to ensure that we can foster a culture where our academics can be versatile and can translate the academic research into forms that non-specialist members of the public can also consume. Number one is the ability, the acumen to do that. And number two is the willingness because I’m sure other colleagues here would have encountered many situations where some researchers will say ‘I’m comfortable just producing for an academic audience’.

Others feel they won’t go far in the university context if they write for a mass market.

“So, it’s a real challenge trying to ensure that the good research that many of our colleagues produce is not just consumed within a small group but is more widely disseminated to educate the wider community,” he said.

Research impact at TUT in Pretoria

Professor Nalini Moodley-Diar (left) said it was important to ensure they had policies which could roll out the kind of impact research should have. She referred to it as the “quadruple helix where universities, government, industry and communities need to work together in order to have an output that’s actually going to have long-term impact”.

Many of the faculty’s staff were also performers or artists and one of the challenges in the performing and visual arts was to grow research in a way that did not affect their creative output. This wasn’t so easy because their creative outputs required time away from teaching, which had to be funded from a pool that was constantly diminishing.

She said there was a lot of opportunity to integrate the arts with the sciences, such as combining engineering and robotics, and software design with fashion design. They had already graduated a student who had combined Information and Communications Technology and the arts, and the faculty was now looking at a project that integrated puppetry and robotics. But it needed significant funding.

Research impact at the University of Melbourne

Professor Andrea Rizzi (right) said there had been conversations and publications across the globe about impact: what it is, what it does, and the value of more impactful teaching and research. “As middle managers we have to carry on that agenda,” he said. “But where exactly are we going with it?”

He said there were different kinds of impact. Everyone would agree that research needed to benefit society, both locally and globally, but there was less certainty about how to achieve that, primarily because funding bodies were focusing more on applied scholarly research with an almost immediate application. That was perhaps inevitable, he said, but it was also important to recognise that good quality research enables impact. “We can’t do anything until we produce very high-quality research and very high-quality teaching. The two things should go together,” he said.

Yet it was important that research criteria and strategies were not imposed on academics and students. Otherwise, he said, they would feel “that their research or their careers are being threatened by directions or agendas that they don’t believe in. That’s a real problem and risk.”

He said trust was another big challenge. He said there was an assumption that if you give academics freedom to use a small budget, they will most likely try to find ways to use the money in ways that might not be considered appropriate. And so, there were constant checks, often with more money inevitably spent on that red tape than on investing it where it might be most useful.

He said the University of Melbourne had done a lot of work to understand impact, and had identified five facets of it:

  • scholarly and creative impact, about knowledge and ways of knowing;
  • policy – impact on politics, policy and governance;
  • media and culture – how its impact was reflected in public debate and perceptions;
  • practice – its impact on processes; and
  • enterprise and operationalising – its economic impact.

The faculty has asked each school to think about impact and quality in terms of their disciplines and programmes and has given them a year to articulate pathways towards that from their perspectives. This has given them “a chance to own their understanding”, he said. It had generated a lot of discussion and would, in 2023, “bring in a coalescing of those different ideas in a way that hopefully will be productive and allow us to be much clearer when we go out and work with our partners, with industries and others, about who we are, what we believe in, and what we are supporting,” said Rizzi.

Challenges in implementing impactful research at RSIS

Professor Ramakrishna said he liked what Professor Rizzi had said about defining impact and working backwards from there. His colleagues would also be interested but he had some reservations about its potential application at RSIS.

If they had five outcomes of impact as a strategic frame for the entire university to follow, that kind of task would become the dean’s responsibility, yet he would find it difficult to put into practice once they got into the nitty-gritty, he said, of approaching each department.

“Wehave the homeland security people who have their views, the counterterrorism folks who have their views, and sometimes these views may not gel, understandably, because they come from different perspectives and disciplines. So, operationalising the strategic frame will take a fair bit of time,” he said.

Challenges in implementing impactful research at TUT

Professor Moodley-Diar said impactful research projects required a purposeful leadership agenda. “What real change can we make? When there’s a purpose attached, even if it is to a curriculum, or the research agenda, or community engagement projects, we really need to figure out how we drive higher education, purposefully,” she said.

She argued that leaders in the hard sciences were traditionally seen as the ones who can drive real change. But there was space for the arts and humanities and social sciences too and creating awareness about different types of thinking. “But how do we shift that even at very micro levels? And how do we build that into a curriculum that’s impactful? We are talking here about impactful research, but it’s also about impactful teaching and learning that leads to a sense of global citizenship. “We have been entrusted with the young people of the future, and we should find critical, purposeful ways to lead them into the future that, to all intents and purposes, is in a precarious situation right now,” said Moodley-Diar.

Challenges in implementing impactful research at the University of Melbourne

Professor Rizzi said one thing universities don’t do very well is “to listen, rather than just imposing or translating its own research into their communities or industries”. They needed to listen and understand the problems from the community’s perspective and how they could help, rather than deciding what the problem is.

Universities also needed to listen to students and understand their perspectives. And then build curricula around a sense of ownership of the problems the students and community face. “It’s about bringing the teaching into the world outside academia,” he said.

Gillian Anstey is a contract writer for Universities South Africa.