‘How to include a concept like “impact” in evaluation models’



Universities can have significant societal impact. But how can they include a broad concept such as ‘impact’ in their evaluation models? Frank van Vree (University of Amsterdam, NIOD/KNAW) and Tim Bedford (University of Strathclyde) talk about their work to include this in recognition and rewards.

“Exchanging knowledge with the non-academic world is the raison d’être of the humanities,” says Frank van Vree, professor of History of War, Conflict and Memory at the University of Amsterdam and director of NIOD Institute for War, Holocaust and Genocide Studies, which is part of the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences (KNAW). “It makes no sense for the humanities to only demand English, peer-reviewed articles in academic journals, but to my frustration this has been the norm for a long time.”


When Van Vree became dean of the Faculty of Humanities in 2012, he tried to create a more diverse assessment tool. This resulted in QRiH (Quality & Relevance in the Humanities). With QRiH, research units write self-assessments in the form of a coherent narrative. The output can include articles and books, but also digital infrastructures, films, blogs, exhibitions and designs, both for specialists and a broader public.

Van Vree tried to change the system of assessing individual researchers in the humanities as well. However, this failed to proceed beyond the experimental stage. “The reluctance to the idea of rewarding staff on other grounds than research appears to be deeply entrenched,” says Van Vree. “And I learned that such an operation may only succeed if it is carried out on an institution-wide level.”

Change the system

Where Van Vree tried to change the evaluation system of the humanities, Tim Bedford (Associate Principal for Research and Innovation at the University of Strathclyde) and his HR colleagues transformed the HR policy of the entire university. In 2011, the university placed the ‘Third Mission’ of knowledge exchange on a par with research and education.

This shift has far-reaching consequences, says Bedford. Knowledge exchange is included in every academic’s annual review, alongside research and education. To recognise knowledge exchange as a legitimate goal in itself, the university created a ‘Knowledge Exchange Career Path’, a completely new category of staff next to regular teachers, researchers and conventional academics. This has become an important strategic tool for the university in supporting excellence in its work with industry, government and the third sector, and has been as important for Humanities and Social Science as it has been for Engineering.

What’s next

How can universities encourage knowledge exchange and societal impact? During a group discussion, the following ideas were discussed:

  • Start with recruitment. Don’t only consider applicants’ research skills, but also their skills to be able to reach out and to engage with a wider audience.
  • A cultural shift is needed. At a lot of universities, there is still an implicit hierarchy in which research is considered more important than education and knowledge exchange.
  • Funding organisations could introduce knowledge exchange and societal impact as explicit criteria.
  • Politicians want a return on investment on their university budgets. Use this political pressure to reform universities to have more societal impact.
  • Imagine a university as a portfolio of activities. Don’t only look at the evaluation of individuals, but at how these people function in a larger system.
  • The coalition of VSNU, funding organisations and universities that has resulted in this position paper has the power to propel changes in the university system. Keep this collaboration ongoing.

Recognition & Rewards

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