Leader: REF must ensure fair play for all

The focus on world-leading work could turn a generation of unsubmitted researchers into second-class citizens

October 11, 2012

It's rapidly approaching what the veteran Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson calls "squeaky-bum time" for pro vice-chancellors for research.

Up and down the country, institutions are running mock research excellence framework exercises as they hone their submission strategies for the real thing next year.

The process is particularly fraught as this is the first iteration of the REF, which is replacing the research assessment exercise.

The number of panels for submissions has been cut and, most controversially, a new measure of research impact will count for 20 per cent of final scores.

Despite the pilot exercise in 2010 and reams of guidance produced since, this new ingredient remains a relative unknown and universities are unsure of how to handle it.

One issue, for example, is who should write the impact case studies. Some universities have entrusted this to the academics themselves, or to their heads of department. But, as we report this week, others have recruited specialist staff to produce case studies - at considerable cost.

Since the annual quality-related (QR) research budget is £1.6 billion in England, however, anything that increases a university's share will be regarded as money well spent.

Universities are particularly concerned to get their submissions right this time because of fears that the QR budget will be cut after the current spending period.

A further curve ball is the removal of funding for 2* research.

Universities are also indulging in "game-playing", with some planning to submit the majority of their staff in the hope of maximising their QR allocation, and others only their very best researchers in the hope of maximising their ranking in the league tables.

Indications suggest that even many teaching-led universities could be more selective this time, with some restricting submissions to researchers with four papers rated at least 3*.

This approach poses an obvious threat to the morale and career prospects of those not submitted - especially early-career researchers.

Only Brunel and Bath Spa universities have said that they will be imposing thresholds below 2* - although many others either haven't decided yet or refuse to reveal their hand.

Some have suggested that institutions should be forced to submit all eligible staff. But who counts as eligible? Moreover, such a move might encourage institutions to move large numbers of staff on to teaching-only contracts.

Another option would be to change to a more bibliometrics-based approach. However, this would be unpalatable to many - especially those outside the sciences - and was rejected after a pilot a few years ago.

A third possibility could be to distribute QR according to how much research council income each university gets. But opponents say this rewards input rather than output.

Perhaps the government should think again about funding 2* research. This focus on excellence seems to have stemmed from the business secretary Vince Cable's statement that the UK had to stop funding "mediocre research". But the 2* categorisation is "internationally recognised", which hardly seems mediocre. And, as others have noted, why have five categories if only two merit funding?

This might at least take some of the heat out of universities' frantic calculations over submissions and prevent the expansion of a group of unsubmitted "second-class citizens".

john.gill@tsleducation.com.

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