Like it’s going out of fashion

Institutions splashed the cash to stay competitive, resulting in a REF price tag that may be far higher than the official estimate

February 12, 2015

Rewind a couple of months and we were asking a billion-pound question: who would win and who would lose in the research excellence framework 2014?

With the scores now in, and a final reckoning due in the grant allocations, this week we ask another potentially billion-pound question: how much did the REF actually cost?

According to Robert Bowman, director of the Centre for Nanostructured Media at Queen’s University Belfast, the REF price tag is far heftier than official estimates are likely to suggest, and may have been as high as £1.2 billion.

Bowman’s inflated calculation reflects the fact that institutions themselves strain every sinew to put together the most competitive REF submissions possible. Many of these costs are likely to be excluded from the official totting-up (which put the cost of the 2008 research assessment exercise at just £47 million), but should they be? After all, the REF is explicitly a competitive process, so the universities’ efforts to compete can hardly be written off as self-imposed extravagance.

The REF is explicitly a competitive process, so the universities’ efforts to compete can hardly be written off as self-imposed extravagance

Putting the precise sums to one side, the question ultimately is whether the REF costs too much as the preferred method for measuring research strength and allocating quality-related funding. The results are used to dole out about £7 billion over their six-year life-span, so the politicians’ answer would be that the money is a worthwhile investment as long as the REF retains the sector’s trust (although they might also question whether an approach based solely on metrics could – for some disciplines at least – return very similar results with far less effort). Others would argue that the REF does not retain academics’ trust, and as such needs major revision regardless.

The issue of cost also has some bearing on the continuing speculation about the future of the system of dual support for research. Ministers moved to scotch those rumours in the recent grant letter, but it’s worth noting that the expenditure of time and effort on the other side of the equation – the allocation of research council funding – has been estimated to be several times that put in to QR.

Elsewhere in this week’s issue, we have an analysis by Danny Dorling, Halford Mackinder professor of geography at the University of Oxford, of the currents swirling around university admissions.

Like so much else in higher education, the future of the UK’s student body is up for grabs, with the kaleidoscope being given a particularly vigorous shake by the abolition of the student numbers cap.

The pieces in motion include the overall expansion of student numbers (more than half a million places were filled this year), the mix of qualifications (four in 10 students admitted by Manchester Metropolitan University this year held BTECs), growing demand from continental Europe and, of course, the parlous state of the job market as an alternative to further study.

Dorling tracks the changes we have already seen, highlighting some counter-intuitive trends, and explores key issues we’re likely to face in years to come.

Underpinning this period of uncertainty is the overarching question of university funding, which for both teaching and research is under close scrutiny. With questions lingering about the sustainability of the status quo, a nettle patch awaits whoever wins the general election this spring.

john.gill@tesglobal.com

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