OPINION: It is clear that the mass of priceless research carried out by universities needs to find its way to the public and to policy makers. The issue is how to get it there.
On the face of it the internet provides the obvious solution and it is logical that universities go online to share their research.
The benefits can be enormous.
The disintegration of media financing models and the threatened implosion of much of the mainstream media adds a sense of urgency to a recalibration of academic research. The provision of high-quality research that simultaneously informs and influences the trajectory of increasingly polarised, partisan debate has become an imperative not least because the online environment privileges free comment over rigorous analysis – now often hidden behind paywalls.
But many of our most highly powered institutions are setting out onto this intergalactic highway system using the cyber equivalent of horse and cart technology.
Look closely into the online research presence of most major Australian academic institutions and you can see the weaknesses. While home pages have become marginally more inviting, delve deeper and one finds how unidimensional, reactive and unengaged a large proportion of university sites remain.
Room for improvement
We hear constantly of the threats posed by the online environment. For universities and researchers, multimedia platforms bring much needed sunlight into the lecture theatre and impose an enhanced degree of accountability, which if not managed, could be a problem for already fragile academic ecosystems.
Increasingly students will make their choices on the basis of how they view the performance of academics, and be attracted to institutions with what Google describes as “rockstar professors”.
In such an environment, satisfying student experience necessitates enormous investment in media and online training; not just for dissemination of academic knowledge to outside providers but for the academic institution itself.
There are threats in this paradigm shift to online but there are also opportunities for universities. The requirement of major funding agencies such as the Australian Research Council for evidence of impact and outcomes has little to do with increased managerialism, symbolism or curtailment of academic blue-sky thinking.
It is a reflection that the old funding model and associated key performance indicators for universities are no longer fit for purpose.
The academy, therefore, has a vital role as well as responsibility to act as a knowledge broker. But the fact is to be a knowledge broker in the 21st century, you need to be online.
An online presence
For the future of higher education research, universities need web portals that take advantage of the online world to create a global community. If this is done well, regulators, policymakers, practitioners and other academics will know about your research and it will provide real impact.
The Centre for Law, Markets and Regulation, which I direct, provides a good example of how this process can be managed. Its has a multimedia platform that maps and tracks regulatory developments across a broad range of financial markets with a fully searchable database.
A university’s online research presence should be aiming to provide a resource like this, which is as useful to practitioners as it is to the academy. They need to consider relevance, timeliness and be optimised for different modes of delivery – particularly mobile. They should also use different formats to get their research out there – opinion pieces, audio podcast and video interviews are just some examples. And finally, universities should use their research presence online to convene workshops and conferences in partnership with government or industry.
If done well, the university can significantly enhance the viability and leveraging power of its research agenda.
Brave leaps forward
This approach is not, however, for the faint-hearted. It necessitates initial substantial and ongoing investment to build and maintain an online presence. It necessitates media and industry partnerships that take time to cultivate.
And it is predicated on the building of global academic alliances, which to be effective need face-to-face contact between academics, industry leaders and policy makers.
The rewards, however, are substantial. Your research presence can facilitate a dialogue that adds to the quality of public discourse. And it can help inform the content of academic courses at both undergraduate and postgraduate level as well as executive programs.
There is no doubt that the resource has the potential to be monetised, although our intention with our research site is to always make it free for academic users.
With much to gain, it’s time for universities and their researchers to finally break free from a closed world of knowledge and embrace the openness of online.
Professor Justin O’Brien is director of the Centre for Law, Markets and Regulation in the UNSW Faculty of Law.
This opinion piece first appeared in The Conversation.