Will the new REF rules level the playing field for the arts?

Challenges for practice research reflect broader issues around knowledge production and academic hierarchies, say Bill Balaskas and Katia Chornik

June 29, 2023
A woman paints on a mountain slope, illustrating practice research
Source: iStock

Among the aspirations recently unveiled for the UK’s next Research Excellence Framework in 2028 are the recognition of a wider variety of research and a fair assessment of all output types. These aims, set out in the Future Research Assessment Programme (FRAP) initial decisions for REF2028, will be particularly welcomed by those involved with practice research, loosely defined in the arts as research conducted by means of artistic or curatorial activity.

It has now been several decades since practice became part of academic enquiry and university degrees, with significant presence in various disciplines. Practitioners-researchers often have strong partnerships with non-academic institutions and make meaningful contributions to their institutions’ civic missions and research impact. Yet, overall, universities and funders still regard practice-based research as a challenge to assess.

That is especially true in the arts because of the inherent heterogeneity and the often-perceived non-utilitarian character and subjectivity of many artistic outputs.

The most salient question for universities with regard to the REF is whether to submit practice research at all. There has been a rooted belief in many institutions that practice outputs pose greater risks than theory outputs. In REF2021, standard academic outputs – monographs, edited books, chapters, journal articles and conference contributions – accounted for more than 63 per cent of submissions in the art and design unit of assessment, while a marked decline was seen in outputs such as designed products and artefacts compared with 2014.

When practice outputs are submitted to the REF, they are often presented in what are known as practice presentations or portfolios. Many universities work with professional graphic designers to conceive or improve the look of presentations, often on the assumption that a consistent visual identity would imply a consistent and unified research ethos.

Textual narratives have also become crucial in practice research presentations. For REF2021, many institutions required practitioner-researchers to structure their presentations in a format akin to that of journal articles, including sections covering the research context, research questions, methods, findings and references. This was often additional to the standard 300-word statements outlining the research process, insights and dissemination. The assessors reported that, in 2021, practice submissions “were significantly improved in terms of detailing the research dimensions” and the strongest examples showed “a notable refinement in the language and narratives of researchers”.

But the reliance on textual narratives and the conventions of dominant research dissemination formats raises the question of whether these are the most representative ways to present practice outputs in disciplines such as the visual arts, music or dance, which are predominantly non-text based.

Practice research might appear heavily translated through the texts used for its presentation and the very vocabulary adopted to describe it. Practitioners-researchers might feel alienated by this. They might even feel that their works have been artificially reverse-engineered regarding their research questions, references and narratives.

All this effort is undertaken despite the fact that the REF sub-panels are formed by disciplinary experts. If the translation is required for purposes of accessibility and justification of the social value of research, shouldn’t the same principle be applied to all types of outputs and disciplines? Why put the arts in such a uniquely defensive position?

Initial decisions for REF2028 include the introduction of a structured explanatory statement, which, if applied to all outputs and disciplines, would constitute a step towards such parity. The document also recognises the need for a proportionate administrative effort, and that aspiration is particularly relevant in the arts.

The singling out of practice outputs as requiring greater justification is all the more inequitable given the low levels of research funding that the arts typically receive as a sector – not to mention the fact that many academics in these disciplines work on fractional contracts. The production of practice portfolios necessitates a substantial investment of time, not only by individual practitioners-researchers but also by research-enabling staff. Notably, the cost-benefit analysis of REF2021 has revealed that the exercise cost universities an estimated £454 million, and research assessments in other countries have also proved to be similarly resource-intensive.

Above anything else, the dilemmas relating to the submission and assessment of practice research outputs are symptoms of a more profound debate about the very nature of knowledge production and its hierarchies within academia. These are starting to be recognised internationally through the gradual adoption of alternative formats of research assessment and the acknowledgment of the importance of fairly assessing all types of research. The FRAP report echoes that recognition, but it will be in the implementation of the directions that the difference is made – or not.

Beyond the particularities of exercises like the REF, a key lesson from research assessments in the arts is the need to be more faithful to the way in which practice research is conducted and disseminated. This approach would benefit both the self-perception of researchers and the public perception of universities. Otherwise, we run the risk of delivering merely transactional rather than transformational systems of research assessment, which flatten the achievements and potentials of practice research whatever the discipline.

Bill Balaskas is director of research, business and innovation and director of the Centre for Practice Research in the School of Arts at Kingston University. Katia Chornik is impact development manager at Kingston and research associate at the University of Cambridge’s Centre of Latin American Studies.

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