Let's wait for the weightings

Data on the number of eligible staff submitted to the REF will produce better rankings - but funding councils must play ball

January 17, 2013

Any university that did not see it coming - and apparently there were a few - will have received quite a jolt from the announcement that the Higher Education Statistics Agency is to publish figures on the number of eligible staff submitted by each unit of assessment to the 2014 research excellence framework.

The assumption is that the Higher Education Funding Council for England, one of Hesa’s “statutory customers”, wants to minimise game-playing and to maximise submission rates - not least so that it does not appear to the Treasury that the number of research-active staff has plummeted since the 2008 research assessment exercise (a scenario that would pose an obvious threat to the research budget).

Statistics on the proportion of eligible staff submitted by each unit were not published in 2008, and there were grumblings about institutions rumoured to have played the RAE solely for prestige, submitting only their best researchers in the hope of maximising their standing in the league tables.

This was perceived as bad both because it left a lot of unsubmitted staff in those institutions feeling like second-class citizens and because it called into question the league tables’ accuracy as indicators of quality.

Ever since the coalition government in effect instructed Hefce to remove all 2* research from the quality-related funding equation, the popular assumption has been that the proportion of researchers submitted to the 2014 REF will be lower than that to any of the RAEs: after all, there is now no financial incentive to enter anyone who has not published at least one paper rated 3* or above.

However, the results of the survey of REF submission intentions, released by the UK funding councils this week, suggest that fears about excessive selectivity may be misplaced, with institutions apparently intending to submit slightly more researchers than in 2008 (although that may simply reflect the sector’s expansion).

Those concerned about game-playing hope that the release of statistics on the number of eligible staff submitted will allow the compilers of league tables to modify university scores according to the proportion of academics entered, with highly selective institutions being marked down accordingly.

It is hard to disagree with the rationale for including such a weighting.

However, Hesa has not committed to publishing the statistics on the same day as the REF results, but rather within a week. This is because it cannot guarantee that the data will be ready by the results’ release date. But if the statistics are not available on the day the REF findings are released, the initial - and perhaps only - league tables published will not be able to include the weightings.

Such a scenario would defeat the object of publishing the submissions data in the first place.

On such an important issue, surely it would not be too great an ask for the funding councils to hold the publication of the REF results until the Hesa data are ready. If universities can wait six years between assessment exercises to find out their place in the pecking order, they can wait one more week to make sure that that position accurately reflects their merit.

john.gill@tsleducation.com.

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