REF 2021: funders let universities submit redundant staff’s work

Funding councils acknowledge that policy U-turn may have 'unintended consequences for individuals'

January 31, 2019
Sacked employee puts items in box

Universities will be allowed to take credit for the work of academics who they have made redundant in the next research excellence framework, the UK’s funding bodies have announced, as they confirm the rules for the 2021 assessment.

Funders had originally proposed that submission of outputs by researchers who were subsequently made redundant should be prohibited for fear of creating “potential negative incentives”. This would have been an exception to the current rules on “portability”, under which the institution at which an output was “demonstrably generated” could have submitted it, as well as the scholar’s current employer.

But, publishing final decisions on the operation of the 2021 REF, the funders say that they have decided to allow the submission of redundant academics’ outputs “because of the significant unintended consequences of doing otherwise”.

Consultation responses had highlighted the potential difficulty of requiring universities to share “sensitive information about staff employment with those responsible for selecting outputs”, the funders said.

Another problem surrounded staff on fixed-term contracts, who are usually counted in redundancy figures at the end of their contract, if their service extends beyond two years. The individuals involved are often early career researchers on research fellowships.

“Our concern would be that removing the option to include submissions from former fellows for example would be a disincentive for universities to take on fellowships,” said Catriona Firth, head of REF policy at Research England.

The funders acknowledged that their decision “may itself have unintended consequences for individuals”, highlighting concerns that it may remove incentives for universities to retain staff.

Last month Times Higher Education reported that Russell Group universities spent £49 million on severance payments and early retirement inducements for staff in 2017-18, up 56 per cent year-on-year, in a move seen by some as a sign of institutions preparing for the REF. A number of universities have announced redundancy programmes in recent months.

David Sweeney, executive chair of Research England, said that he recognised that allowing for submission of outputs produced by researchers who had left a university on bad terms could “upset” people.

However, it “would be unfair to penalise people who would want their outputs to be counted, simply in order to appease those who do not”, Mr Sweeney said. “The decision was made because…there is no practical way of asking institutions to differentiate between those groups,” he said.

More broadly, the funders’ guidance encourages universities to adhere to the spirit as well as the letter of the rule which requires – for the first time – the submission of at least one output from every academic with “significant responsibility for research”.

Amid concern that universities are responding to this by moving academics who they perceive to be underperforming onto teaching-only contracts, the guidance says that academics who change from a teaching and research or research-only contract during a REF cycle are classed as former members of staff and that outputs which were first made publicly available when they were on their old contract are still eligible for submission. Staff who remain on teaching and research or research-only contracts, but who are no longer considered to have significant responsibility for research, will not be eligible for submission.

The research funders go as far as to offer guidance on what “significant responsibility for research” means, stating that means staff for whom “explicit time and resources are made available…to engage actively in independent research…and that is an expectation of their job role”.

The guidance says that processes for identifying staff with significant responsibility for research should be transparent and consistent, only varying between units of assessment where there are disciplinary differences in employment practices.

The funders had originally proposed that researchers based outside the UK should not be eligible for submission but, amid concern that disciplines such as tropical medicine may be disproportionately affected, the funders have reverted to the 2014 rules, which state that submission is possible, “as long as the primary focus of their research activity on the census date is clearly and directly connected to the submitting unit based in the UK”.

rachael.pells@timeshighereducation.com

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Reader's comments (2)

Your piece states: "the guidance says that academics who change from a teaching and research or research-only contract during a REF cycle are classed as former members of staff and that outputs which were first made publicly available when they were on their old contract are still eligible for submission." I can't find any reference to this, rather such submissions appear to be explicitly outlawed by paragraph 212. "The outputs of staff who continue to be employed by the institution as Category A eligible staff (i.e. meet the criteria set out in paragraph 117) but who no longer have significant responsibility for research on the census date are not eligible". These two statements appear to be incompatible. Can you please clarify?
Surely there’s a simple solution to David Sweeney’s concern about people who want their work submitted. Just require that the staff member has to agree to the submission of their work.

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