A significant minority of UK academics who responded to a survey reported having been threatened with a change of role or contractual status if they performed unsatisfactorily on the research excellence framework, or said they had been asked to change their work’s focus to better suit the assessment.
The Real-Time REF Review, a longitudinal pilot study commissioned by Research England to evaluate the impact of the exercise on academics, found that – on the whole – respondents’ views about the evaluation were not as extreme as is sometimes thought, and were best described as “moderately negative”. The study was based on survey responses from 598 academics across the universities of Cardiff, Lincoln, Sheffield and Sussex, as well as interviews with 21 managers involved in the REF across the four institutions.
However, recurring issues of performance management, game-playing and a perceived negative impact on researchers’ mental health were highlighted as continuing concerns.
Some 17.5 per cent of survey respondents said their department had indicated that they could expect their role to change if they failed to perform to the standard that managers wanted to achieve in the REF, and 10.3 per cent said they could expect their contract to change if they did not meet expectations.
After the decision that all academics with “significant responsibility for research” will be submitted to REF 2021 – a change from 2014, when managers could choose which employees to enter – there has been significant anxiety that staff who fall short of expectations for research output will be moved on to teaching-only contracts.
Meanwhile, 15.4 per cent of respondents reported having been asked to change the focus of their research to “accommodate” the REF.
“While this is a relatively small proportion of respondents, it still indicates that a sizeable portion of research content within the UK may be directly shaped through REF expectations,” the study’s authors write.
James Wilsdon, professor of research policy at the University of Sheffield and co-author of the pilot study, said the proportion of academics who had been asked to refocus their research was “low, but still something to be concerned about”, given that the purpose of the REF was to “measure and not interfere with research agendas”. “The tail is not meant to wag the dog,” he said.
While just under one in six respondents reported the use of two or more worrying management tactics in their department, the study’s authors note that “constructive motivational approaches” were being used “more frequently than pressuring motivational strategies”.
It was not possible to tell from the survey exactly how research was being influenced, but Professor Wilsdon said he imagined it was “likely to be the case that researchers are being pressured to submit work to higher impact journals rather than being told to change the trajectory of their work”.
Surveys for the study were taken between April and August 2018, when changes to the 2021 REF were being implemented in accordance with the 2016 Stern review – which made recommendations designed to reduce game-playing among institutions and to make the exercise less burdensome.
Steven Hill, director of research at Research England and chair of the REF 2021 steering group, said the findings gave “valuable understanding about the lived experiences of academics” that would be taken on board in the design of future assessments.
“There is much in this report that reassures, but also some evidence that we can improve processes…We also encourage higher education institutions to consider the report’s findings on good practice and the role it plays in supporting a positive research environment,” he said.
Print headline: REF pressures force academics to refocus work