It’s the way that they do it

The REF may have alienated many academics because of how it has been interpreted by a management culture

December 11, 2014
John Gill, editor, Times Higher Education
Source: Peter Searle

Are you REFable or a REFugee? As an academic in the UK, if you aren’t one, you’re probably the other.

The research excellence framework is clearly a dominant factor in the way our universities are run, influencing everything from personal prestige to professional prospects, research priorities to collegial relations – not to mention funding.

On 18 December, we will finally discover who has won and lost in REF 2014. But before we find ourselves up to our eyeballs in data, we hear this week from a professor who did the unthinkable and asked to be excluded from the REF.

His reason? “Deep anger,” he says. “Anger as a citizen at seeing huge amounts of money squandered on an exercise I came to believe had no real purpose…anger as a scholar at seeing intellectual horizons narrowed…and anger as a professional at seeing colleagues excluded from the REF on the basis of dubious evaluations.”

The argument made by Derek Sayer, professor of cultural history at Lancaster University, goes beyond the specifics of his own department or university.

It is that the REF has mutated beyond the founding concept of a periodic review of research strength to inform funding (although even in this, according to no lesser figures than Sir Paul Nurse and Lord Stern of Brentford in our letters pages this week, it is far more intrusive and unwieldy than was ever intended).

The REF, Sayer suggests, is now a framework around which universities manage themselves in a much broader sense: the mechanism for making decisions about hiring, firing and promotion – ultimately, for exercising control.

Is he right? There’s certainly widespread concern about an excessively managerial approach in universities, and the REF figures high in the list of complaints about the changing culture.

Here are a few of the dozens of comments on its impact from academics who responded to a Times Higher Education survey last year: “I despair at the lack of fairness and equity that the REF blackmail culture has developed”; “There is an absolute obsession about working to the NSS [National Student Survey] and the REF – nothing else matters and academic integrity is out of the window as a result”; “Academics seem to have lost the thread as to the point of research and now just seem focused upon the REF”; and so on, and so on.

The question, though, is how far this can be blamed on the REF itself, and how far universities, and in particular those running them (and this is about not vice-chancellors but a management culture), have interpreted and employed the audit approach apparent in the REF.

Describing the impact at the coalface, one respondent to our survey said: “My research group had an international reputation established over 40 years. The successful domination of managerialist over collegial approaches – manifested most sharply in responses to the REF – has destroyed this.”

The difficulty is that if – as this suggests – the most damaging aspect of the REF has been its interpretation and application, then that cannot be tackled by the funding councils changing the methodology. Rather, it will require universities to heed warnings that the current approach is polluting the well – a much tougher battle than an argument over the weighting of impact, metrics and peer review.

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Reader's comments (1)

Magazine with a countdown to RAE on its front page, which sponsors global league tables criticises obsession with ranking. As they say, for everything else there is mastercard.