Buying, Selling and Impact – ‘In the Market for Academic Research’

This post was contributed by Habibatou Gani, senior editor at the Birkbeck Law Review, Birkbeck University, University of London. The Birkbeck Law Review Conference will take place in November 2015.

Law on TrialThe fourth day of Law on Trial 2015 saw Professor Fiona Macmillan chair a panel of leading academics on the issue of ‘Scholars, Intellectuals and Research Evaluation Exercises’. The panel considered the research function carried out by universities.

It reflected on the opportunities and criteria for research funding within academic research. It ended its discussion with an engaging debate on the challenges and hopes for the future of academic research.

Prof Macmillan, of Birkbeck’s School of Law, opened the panel discussion by posing a series of questions to the panellists and the audience. She asked those present to consider how universities think about themselves as scholars and what role academics play. She introduced the panellists:

From intellectual enquiry to a tool for economic growth

Prof Ashiagbor started by saying that she wanted people to consider how universities think about scholarship. A look at Lord Robbins’ report on higher education, published in October 1963, reveals the then prevailing attitudes toward universities as intellectual incubators, within which, according to Robbins, students were exposed to intellectual inquiry.

Ashiagbor contrasts that position with the demonstrable shift in attitudes, wherein higher education and the institutions which dispense them, are seen as existing in an open market for education and competition for students. Education is seen, by the state, primarily as a tool for economic growth. Ashiagbor notes that presently, the government agency responsible for allocating the education budget falls within the auspices of the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills. Ashiagbor also wanted to introduce the idea of what she has quite interestingly coined as the ‘entrepreneurial scholar’. She says that this shift in focusing on the monetisation of academic scholarship has compelled some scholars to convert their academic research into easily digestible material.

The Research Excellence Framework (‘REF’) and the ‘impact’ criterion

Both Ashiagbor and Norrie discussed the REF and reflected on its impact on research scholarship. REF 2014 was a culmination of an assessment of research undertaken from 2008 to 2013. Ashiagbor explained that REF sought to assess the impact of research outside of academia.

Impact, in the context of REF, is defined as “an effect on, change or benefit to the economy, society, culture, public policy or services, health, the environment or quality of life, beyond academia”. Ashiagbor expressed her reservation regarding the inclusion and centrality of ‘impact’ in the task of assessing the power of research. She recalled that many, now household legal and social, concepts such as sexual harassment and transitional justice did not exist before research. She asked, how would and could one go about quantifying the impact of such research. In this vein, Ashiagbor noted that ‘REF impact’ has shifted the focus from narrowing research to mechanical and measurable output.

Norrie, spoke about his participation in REF. His approach was far more pragmatic. He noted that today the neo liberal university is what he eloquently coined, a ‘leaner enterprise’ in so far as competition for academic scholarship and funding means that universities are increasingly selective in the academic pursuits they choose to support. Equally, Norrie noted that despite the REF initiative, ‘we must remain academic communities within and outside academia’.

Alan Norrie talking on the REF panel

End of a Certain Type of Academic Work?

At the outset of his address, Motha explained that he wanted to talk about what he considered to be the end of a certain type of academic work. He said that when thinking about the impact of impact on academic research, we should remember why one enters academia in the first place. In doing so, he compared the achievements of the Feminist Judgement Project at Kent University and the MacBride judgement in South Africa.

Emerging Marketization of Education

As Motha spoke to the death of certain species of academic work, in the Q&A that followed, Prof Adam Gearey of Birkbeck Law School, sitting in the audience, intervened with a comment and question. He opined that through its discussions, intentionally or unintentionally, the panel had raised questions of work and value of work at play within education.

Prof Gearey questioned whether the REF was in fact asserting education as a market in of itself. Reshaping the discussion, Prof Gearey asked that if an ‘education market’ was being asserted, it was seemingly unregulated. He invited the panel to consider the existence of the education market and the dangers of its seemingly unregulated existence. In response, Ashiagbor saw the merits in the argument for the emerging marketization of education, owing to the discerning shift in focus within academic scholarship to competition, rather than intellectual collaboration.

The final intervention came from Dr Nadine El-Enanay, lecturer at law at Birkbeck Law School. She asked the panel, whether in furtherance of creating an education market, REF intended to bread competitive rivalry within academia. The panellists noted that REF might well have resulted in a kind of competitive rivalry within academia.

In closing, Motha expressed renewed hope that academic institutions and individual scholars, would continue to operate collaboratively, insulating themselves against commercial influences and staying true to what brought them to academia. In doing so, Motha hoped to preserve what he considered the core purpose of academic scholarship, to engage in critical thinking and research.

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