Reflections on a year in academia

Last September I left my management consultancy job in London to embark on a PhD in Politics. As I near my 12-month academic anniversary, I have reflected on life in the ivory tower.

1.      Money is good

I’ll start with a very positive point: money. I am very grateful to the UK higher education funding body, the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC), providing me with a grant. This covers my course fees, and a living allowance each month.

Although this does not compare to the average London salary, and definitely won't make you a millionaire, it does mean that people can take time out of work to think in-depth in a way that paid employment doesn't allow.

I don’t think it is an explicit objective of this funding, but it does seem like a good way of fostering skills transfer. On a sector level, it enables people working in the public and private sectors to spend time in academia. And it could also influence the geographic spread of skills, by encouraging people to move and study in cities across the country.  

2.      Resistance to impact

I have spent much of my career advocating for government, charities, and others to rigorously evaluate the impact of their work. I am also used to having to demonstrate the impact of my own work, be that through how my think tank research has had influenced government policy, or how I have boosted the bottom line. I have then been taken aback by the view of some academics that they explicitly do not want to have an impact.

In one session I attended on the REF (Research Excellence Framework), a senior academic said in a very matter of fact tone, “my research does not need to have impact”. This is not a view held by all scholars, but there is definitely a group who think that academia is space for them to work on whatever they want, and see an irrelevance to mainstream debates and issues as badge of honour.

I fear that this minority view will hinder academia. Academics need to get with the programme: anyone else spending public money is rightly scrutinised, and academics should arguably experience the same.

(Before I get trolled – see below).

3.      Expanding the definition of impact

I appreciate that point 2 above is controversial.

Ideologically, for many, academia is the space for not being led by current debates, not being restricted to certain topics, and instead providing space to think expansively and creatively.

I agree with this entirely.  

My concern arises from the fact that it can sound esoteric and vague. And when budgets are being cut, these are not terms you want to be associated with.

To ensure that academia remains a space for solving problems that we know about now and pushing boundaries and exploring things we haven’t even yet thought about, then impact needs to be re-conceptualised. My old alma mater Nesta, has created some excellent guidance which academia could draw upon. It looks at how impact can be influencing government policy, but it can also be about influencing theory or practice. This isn’t about changing what academia does, but communicating it in a way that makes its unknowns known and relevant.