REF: late crusaders and early adopters

January 8, 2015

While we the undersigned colleagues of Derek Sayer essentially agree that the research excellence framework is deeply problematic (we think the vast majority of the sector do as well), we are bemused by his portrayal as a one-man “crusader” against the REF (“Protest for a REFormation”, Features, 11 December). In fact, no one in Lancaster University’s history department played a larger role than Sayer – while he was its head – in establishing the internal decision-making framework for the REF. It was only after his sudden resignation as head of department that his “crusade” against the REF and his criticism of departmental procedures began – apparently (it seems to us) when people who were close to him were nominated for exclusion from the department’s submission.

We are confident that – contrary to Sayer’s assertions – those subsequently involved in the REF procedure at departmental level acted honourably in the thankless task to which they were assigned. Unfortunately, selection is always problematic and divisive, and we agree that excluded staff can feel demoralised and insecure; but this is particularly so where aggressive institutions and unscrupulous managers exploit the REF as a crude instrument of performance management.

However, at Lancaster (we are glad to stress) there were no threats of redundancy, disciplinary action, change of contract terms, or denial of professional advancement as a result of exclusion from the REF; indeed the university’s policy, adopted after negotiation with the University and College Union, explicitly rules out such sanctions. We are pleased to state that this policy is fully respected within our department. Consequently, we are a rather happier department than a few years ago, despite the REF. After all, collegiality and good work find it harder to flourish amid threats or scrambles for preferment than they do under the strictures of the REF regime.

Sarah Barber, Mercedes Camino, Alexander Grant, Patrick Hagopian, Paul Hayward, Corinna Peniston-Bird, Stephen Pumfrey, Jeffrey Richards, Thomas Rohkrämer, Deborah Sutton, Angus Winchester
Lancaster University


Cardiff University’s approach to the research excellence framework has been transparent, strategic and highly successful. We decided from the outset that our goal was to be in the top 10 universities when measured on grade point average. This highly ambitious approach, along with the concomitant decision that volume and intensity would be second-order issues, was made explicit and published in our strategic plan in 2012. As your news story “And the crown for best individual performance…” (News, 18/25 December) makes clear, we “comfortably” achieved this strategic aim.

In keeping with our transparent approach, we have also been clear with our academics that anybody who is producing or is capable of producing high-quality research will be supported, irrespective of whether their work was included in REF 2014.

REF stands for “research excellence framework”, not “research intensity framework” or “research power framework”. The latter ranking favours larger institutions; the former relies on separate data external to the REF whose accuracy is in some cases open to question.

Cardiff is an extremely innovative and ambitious university, conscious of its responsibilities to Wales as well as to the wider world. Achieving a strong ranking in GPA tables was our paramount aim, in which we spectacularly succeeded. We will build on this to strengthen the university yet further.

Colin Riordan
Cardiff University


I welcome Times Higher Education’s compilation of research intensity-weighted rankings of universities and subject areas (“The race is not to the swift”, Features, 1 January) and recall my appeal made to you along these lines some years ago (“Change rules to end game-play”, Letters, 29 September 2006). Thank you.

There are two further steps that could be taken to help eliminate game-playing. First, subtract any contribution to the assessment by high-profile reduced-contract appointments. Several departments are known to employ researchers on minimal contracts purely for the purpose of boosting their REF returns. These appointees are usually not seen on campus and rarely contribute to teaching. This is a travesty of justice in an environment in which tuition fees subsidise research.

Second, estimate and subtract any research that was returned for assessment but is unlikely to have been carried out at the institution claiming credit for it. The REF’s practice of assessing the academics in post on a particular date encourages a transfer market and presents a distorted picture of the achievements of the unit being assessed.

These moves could allow our institutions of scholarship to regain the moral high ground that they ought to occupy in society.

Mahesan Niranjan
University of Southampton

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