Make research distinctive, not just about REF success

Discussion of research excellence framework reform has overlooked the role of research itself, argues Kevin Hetherington

March 10, 2017
research, library, researcher
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A new research era beckons for UK higher education. As the REF 2021 consultation period draws to a close and institutions prepare to send off their feedback on Hefce’s interpretation of Lord Stern’s recommendations, it is worth reflecting on what that might look like.

Sadly, most of the discussion around this technically-framed consultation has focused narrowly on the removal of selectivity and (more especially) the use of Hesa codes to ascribe staff to units of assessment, issues of portability of outputs and the impact on academic mobility, plus the institutional environment and impact case studies.

What has been missing has been discussion on the future role of research, in the broader sense, in a changing higher education landscape.

Stern’s concentration on the removal of selectivity has brought the issue of intensity into sharp focus. In research terms in the UK, we have a three-tier sector, with about one-third research intensive (above 70 per cent inclusion overall in REF 2014), one-third teaching intensive where scholarship really matters, and a third in the undifferentiated and vulnerable middle, in real need of making some hard positioning choices. And while we do need research excellence to be supported and funded wherever it is found across the sector, it is questionable whether the UK really needs more than 150 institutions all seeking REF success across the board.

The UK needs, rather, a broader mix of research types.

The proposed "all in" approach seeks to view and measure the work of all staff who are deemed to undertake research through the same REF lens. Yet what these staff are engaged with and do is much more varied than that. While many are doing "genesis" research, commonly thought of as REF-type research, others do contract research and consultancy for industry, and others are involved in scholarship, both for and of teaching, professional practitioner research and forms of external or public engagement.

This breadth adds to the richness and dynamism of our sector and the differing but complementary strengths of institutions within it.

Limited public discussion about a more holistic view around what role universities now play in the UK has meant we have not really discussed this more distributed understanding of “research” excellence. The UK higher education sector is on the cusp of major disruptions: research funding and student numbers challenges post-Brexit, competition from alternative providers, challenges around student debt, the need to address an industrial strategy, and a blurring of the status between degrees and work-based higher-level apprenticeships and the value of HE and FE, quite apart from the emerging digital disruption, that could, over time, profoundly reshape the future of higher education as we currently understand it. 

Will a narrow prioritisation of REF-measured research help address these challenges?

In such a challenging environment, the argument should be: let our research-intensive universities focus on broad-based research excellence as defined by the REF, and let others harness what research they do to a wider understanding of academic excellence that supports their distinctive purpose, and promotes their resilience in a changing world. We need a research funding environment that encourages development of scholarship in teaching and learning, developing not just research but also scholarship and pedagogy around new, post-disciplinary global challenges.

Some universities could do more to champion their civic and place-based roles, or their commercial research and industrial strategy. They could, alternatively, refresh and refine their mission or use research to develop the tools for success in digital innovation and new forms of learning environment. Removing selectivity from the REF may divert us from these priority needs.

Some will no doubt gasp aloud at an argument that questions the primacy of research as an across-the-board requirement, seeing it as a necessity for university status or as a global reputational distinguisher within the sector and a differentiator from the feared non-research-active alternative providers waiting in the wings. But if Stern’s recommendations are accepted, I believe that the emphasis on intensity is likely to further entrench a narrow understanding of research and leave many challenges out there.

For all but the most research-intensive universities, positioning around distinctiveness rather than REF success is more likely to be where the real success and long-term resilience will lie.

Kevin Hetherington is pro vice-chancellor research and academic strategy at The Open University.

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Print headline: We should allow research to be distinctive and serve more than just REF success

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