The pros and cons of REF’s diversity guidance

Dianne Berry and Kim Hackett unpack new guidance for research excellence framework submissions that attempts to ensure staff who have individual circumstances can still contribute to output

August 30, 2018
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Draft guidance on making submissions to the research excellence framework, published in July 2018, proposes how researchers’ personal circumstances should be accounted for when making submissions for the next exercise.

The guidelines build on the development of measures to promote equality and diversity since the funding bodies’ consultation on many aspects of the second REF after Lord Stern’s independent review. 

We thought that it would be useful to explain some of the background to the proposals and run though the potential advantages and drawbacks.

Decoupling staff from outputs

One of the review’s recommendations was to break the direct link between staff outputs and funding in the assessment process. The thinking was that this would provide more flexibility when making submissions and so remove the need to take into account the effect of staff circumstances on productivity.

While the sector widely supported this in responses to the funding bodies’ consultation, some were concerned that a flexible approach to the submission of research outputs would not on its own sufficiently promote equality and diversity. There were questions of whether this approach could lead to discriminatory REF selection or recruitment behaviours, and/or negatively affect career progression as a result of there being no formal way to account for staff with fewer outputs.

Others supported a lighter-touch method than that used in REF 2014 to reduce the burden, cost and unnecessarily intrusive procedures that participants faced. In short, the consultation showed that the sector has mixed views about whether reduced burden sufficiently justifies the lack of measures to account for individual circumstances. 

However, in November 2017, the funding bodies confirmed that the direct link with staff would be removed. Rather than a set number of outputs for each staff member, the new exercise will require a set number of outputs based on the number of staff submitted, with a minimum of one and maximum of five outputs for each staff member. 

To support equality and diversity, the funding bodies also said that arrangements would be made to take into account staff circumstances in two ways. The first allowing staff to return to the exercise without having the minimum of one output, where exceptional circumstances have affected their ability to meet this requirement. 

Second, that measures would be put in place to recognise where departments or other higher education institution groupings (making a submission as a “unit”) may have fewer outputs overall to choose from because they have higher proportions of staff affected by individual circumstances.  

Supporting equality and diversity

The proposals set out in the draft guidance build on earlier decisions. For example, they take into account concerns about an approach focused solely on the effects of staff circumstances on the overall available output pool, rather than on individuals’ contributions to it.

The proposals also allow fixed reductions in the number of outputs to be submitted for periods when staff have been absent from work (or where the effect has been equivalent to an absence) for a range of equality related circumstances, including family-related leave and career breaks. 

As with the REF 2014, requests for reductions will be optional. We anticipate that many departments and groups will manage the effect of circumstances within the new flexibility to return between one to five outputs for staff, while having clear information available to them on the range of acceptable circumstances that could affect staff outputs. 

Balancing the pros and cons

The REF aims to promote equality and diversity by ensuring that differences in productivity that result from equality related staff circumstances are recognised, and by seeking to address potential negative incentives resulting from this. 

An approach based on tariffs that are set out in advance aims to mitigate this risk. This approach would recognise the effect of circumstances on productivity and could help reduce pressure on individuals to produce work at the same rate as unaffected staff. This would also recognise HEI groupings or departments that have a relatively high proportion of affected staff, while addressing potential disincentives around recruitment and career progression.

There are, of course, consequences to all these efforts to promote equality and diversity in REF submissions.

First, institutions may be concerned about the increase in burden associated with collecting and submitting information about staff circumstances. Although we will seek to keep information requirements to a minimum, institutions will need robust processes in place to collect the necessary information. The flexible approach to the output pool should also result in reduced pressure on individuals to disclose sensitive information compared with previous REF exercises. 

A second potential drawback is that by increasing the concentration of research in the output pool from staff who are not affected by circumstance, this could mean that work from certain staff groups may potentially be under-represented.

We want to hear your views on these issues through the consultation and there will be an opportunity to hear more about the proposals during the consultation events on the draft guidance and criteria that are taking place in September or through our webinars.

Dianne Berry is chair of the REF Equality and Diversity Advisory panel and Kim Hackett is REF director at Research England. 

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