I am sometimes asked why HEPI doesn’t publish more policy papers by academics, given that all our output relates to higher education which, by definition, academics know about.
It is a good question and one for which I probably do not have the perfect reply. (I am taking ‘academics’ here to mean practising academics rather than academics-turned-managers.)
There are lots of reasons why but perhaps the principal one is that relatively few academics ever express an interest in writing for us. So it is a problem of supply more than one of demand.
One particular barrier seems to be that HEPI output is not REF-able, even though – I suspect – writing for any think tank is a very good way of demonstrating impact. For one thing, our reports are not behind pay walls, meaning they are accessible to policymakers, most of whom cannot access regular academic journals. And, even if a piece of writing published by HEPI doesn’t tick every box that academics need to fill, it can still draw attention to and drive traffic towards an author’s other output. I know of one academic who has written for us in the past who found the ‘popular’ version of their work published by HEPI reached 10 times as many people as the more highfalutin version published elsewhere.
A second issue is that, when we do explore the possibility of publishing more pieces by academics, we come across some practical difficulties. The most common one is that, however high-grade the work, it is often top-notch analysis of a problem rather than focused on policy solutions to correct any such problems. We need both together. As we make clear in our Style Guide for potential authors, HEPI is a policy body above all, so all our papers must have a direct connection to constructive policy-making.
It is often said that academic-ese, that is the tendency of academics to write in language that is less-than-wholly accessible, hinders their impact on policy. This might be true but it is fairly easily fixed. So it is almost certainly less of a genuine problem than is often supposed. (In HEPI’s early days, we used to publish two versions of our reports – one more detailed and technical and one more accessible. The heart of the content was the same but we stopped doing it because we lacked clear evidence of substantial engagement with the more detailed pieces.)
I have been dwelling on these issues recently because of the paper we published last week with UPP on the history of student accommodation, authored by the Oxford historian William Whyte. It is, to my biased eyes, a brilliant example of how academics can use their academic output to engage fruitfully with policy-making. (Not everyone agrees – the Vice-Chancellor of Birmingham City University, Philip Plowden, takes issue with it in the latest episode of the Wonkhe Show.) Similarly, in another HEPI report from earlier this year, Professor Steven Jones of the University of Manchester brought his academic discipline and his personal experience together to write about the contemporary challenge of improving university governance.
So we do publish pieces by academics but it remains the case that only a small number of our 25 reports each year are authored by active teachers / researchers. Other organisations seem to have the same challenge: the Higher Education Policy Network, established in February of this year to tackle the problem has yet to make any impact.
So, if you are an academic working on higher education and are frustrated by how little the world outside academia engages with your research, and – of course – can find the time, then do consider submitting something to us in 2020.