Cost of REF doubled to £471 million for 2021 exercise

Policies to curb university expenditure on research assessment exercise failed to stop soaring costs, report finds

六月 15, 2023
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The cost of the latest Research Excellence Framework was £471 million – almost double the price tag of the 2014 exercise, a report has revealed.

Despite efforts to reduce the REF’s administrative burden on universities, a cost-benefit analysis commissioned by Research England and other UK funding bodies found that institutional spending on the 2021 exercise soared to £454 million, while another £17 million was spent on the REF by funding bodies.

That compares with the £246 million estimated cost of the 2014 exercise, which itself was four times as much as the £66 million spent on the 2008 audit, a rise caused partly by the need to articulate impact in REF submissions for the first time.

The rising cost of the 2014 REF was identified as a problem by Lord Stern of Brentford in his 2016 review, which observed that the “burden of the REF is rightly a matter of concern”. Several of his recommendations, such as the inclusion of all research-active staff to eliminate the need for selection of researchers, were partly aimed at reducing institutional expenditure.

However, the new figures published on 15 June as part of a wider report on the shape of REF 2028, indicate that Lord Stern’s proposals may have inadvertently led to higher spending. A further breakdown of where universities incurred REF costs is due to be published shortly.

The massive increase in staff selected for inclusion might explain some of the increased spending. Some 76,132 academic staff entered at least one output into REF 2021, up 46 per cent from 52,000 in 2014, while 7,000 impact case studies and about 2,000 unit and institutional level environment statements – which could be as long as 12,000 words – were also submitted to the assessment, which is used to allocate about £2 billion a year in research funding.

While the report by the Future of Research Assessment Panel (FRAP) acknowledges that the REF imposed “significant administrative effort” on universities, it explains that this spending “represents 3-4 per cent of the block grant funding linked to its outcomes, compared with an estimated 12 per cent for project funding in other parts of the dual support system” – a reference to the costs of awarding competitive grant funding.

According to a 2015 report, the cost of the 2014 REF amounted to about 2.4 per cent of the £10.2 billion it awarded over a six-year cycle.

However, the costs incurred as a result of the REF often had far-reaching benefits, the latest report continues. “Institutions valued many of the culture shifts resulting from [REF-related] changes, such as greater inclusivity or more open research practices,” it adds.

Referring to the unpublished full report on the REF 2021’s benefits, the report adds that “the great majority of those surveyed believe REF 2021 represented moderate or high value for money”.

“When considering the burden of the REF, it is important to distinguish those areas where burden is unnecessary or disproportionate from those aspects where REF-related costs have a beneficial impact beyond the exercise,” it concludes.

The report identifies the selection of staff outputs, the identification of staff with significant responsibility for research, support for impact submissions, complying with open access requirements and the process of reducing outputs based on staff circumstances as areas that led to considerable costs to universities.

The cost-benefit analysis has recommended that savings would be possible if the next REF maintains continuity with rules and processes from previous exercises; that REF 2028 guidance is issued in a timely fashion; and the REF is aligned with other UK research policies.



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Reader's comments (2)

I wouldn't be surprised if much of the additional expenditure was caused by the open access policy, and specifically the requirement to deposit on acceptance rather than on publication. Very few publishers routinely provided date of acceptance in their metadata when the policy came into force (and many still don't) leaving institutions with no option but to put in place hugely labour-intensive manual processes to gather and verify this data. It’s worth noting that this policy remains in force…
This works out at over £2000 per academic in the UK. Why not scrap the REF and instead give that directly to academics to spend on their research? I'm in a low-cost research subject, so just the £300 per year spent submitting me to the REF would be plenty for all the research funding I would ever want!