In theory, requiring UK universities to submit all of their research-active staff to the 2021 research excellence framework is a great innovation. In previous iterations of the exercise, when universities could choose who to submit, the results were marred by so-called game playing, whereby certain institutions submitted much smaller proportions of their eligible staff than others did, in order to maximise their quality scores.
But those who run the REF do not seem to understand how deeply game playing is etched into the psyches of modern universities.
Instead of creating a fairer assessment and reducing the burden on everyone of deciding who to submit, it is becoming apparent that the new rules are leading to even more ruthless and deceitful behaviour on the part of university managers.
Since all staff on teaching and research contracts must submit at least one “output” to the 2021 REF, those who do not have at least one deemed 3* (“internationally excellent”) or 4* (“world-leading”) are in grave peril. Last month, Times Higher Education revealed that the Russell Group alone spent nearly £50 million on severance payouts during the 2017-18 financial year: more than 50 per cent more than during the previous year.
The alternative to making people redundant is to force them on to teaching-only contracts. This is what has happened to me. I am a Russell Group academic with research grants and numerous publications to my name, along with extensive PhD supervision and teaching experience. But after I was deemed to have no outputs better than 2* (“internationally recognised”), I was hauled before my line manager and, in effect, told – without prior warning – that unless I produce a 3* or 4* article within months, my contractual responsibility for research will be removed.
While teaching-only contracts may be ideal for some people, those conducting research see them as an effective demotion. Nor am I the only one to have been subjected to such threats. It has also happened to senior colleagues – and I have heard similar tales from other institutions. Moreover, this contractual game playing is only likely to snowball over the next two years as the REF submission date approaches.
The demand to produce a 3* output at the drop of a hat is, of course, completely unrealistic. Planning new research, obtaining funding, conducting the research, writing up and finding a publisher can take years. We have been told that we will be also able to stay on teaching and research contracts if we can find another unit of assessment that takes a rosier view of the quality of our existing outputs and is prepared to submit us. But that option is not open to the colleague who was lured on to a teaching-only contract with the promise of a promotion that never actually materialised.
You can imagine what all this has done to the relationship between management and staff in my department. To make matters worse, the “evaluation” of our publications was performed by a single individual who, in many cases, has little or no knowledge of their context. Most of my departmental colleagues use different methods from mine: with the best will in the world, this makes it difficult for them to accurately judge the quality of my articles.
I do not deny that judgement of academics according to universal standards can be legitimate. But such a system needs a high level of reliability and validity. It needs to call on the expertise of those who know something about the research area in question. Teaching assessment, for instance, is carried out by at least two people from different subject backgrounds, and their assessment is blind, minimising the risk of bias.
Of course, my bullied colleagues and I can bring the union in, and I am sure the reps will do their best. Unfortunately, however, the UK’s abolition of tenure in the 1980s, combined with the massive financial and legal power of the universities, means that, realistically, if we do not accept the new contracts then we will probably find ourselves joining those already made redundant. Even to complain is a big risk: that is why I am writing anonymously.
In the past, universities’ desperation to win the REF game created a frenzied transfer market in which the big boys and girls with a string of 4* outputs were able to command considerable fees. But while not being selected for submission was never good career news, this time around, those marked down in internal assessments face a sudden and permanent end to their research careers.
Such brutal treatment of effective academics will do nothing to improve the accuracy of the REF as an assessment of the relative strengths of UK universities’ research. It will do nothing to drive a fairer distribution of more than £1 billion a year in research funding. But it will do further damage to the strength of the research on which the government is relying to power the UK’s knowledge economy post-Brexit – just as we are beginning to experience a significant brain drain precisely on account of Brexit.
In short, if universities can’t stop their game playing, the whole country risks being cheated.
The author wishes to remain anonymous.