Stern review: research ructions and reality

Unease over the suggestion to tie work to universities overlooks the reality that the REF is an institutional review

August 4, 2016
Car with clamped wheel
Source: iStock

It is hard to exaggerate the hold that the research excellence framework has over UK academia.

It is, quite simply, the single biggest influence on the way that universities operate. It dictates the behaviour of both academics and managers. It is blamed for shameless game-playing, crazy transfer markets, for sowing division, encouraging exclusion and spawning layer upon layer of bureaucracy.

It is expensive and unloved. It is also widely believed to have improved the quality of UK research.

So for those who breathe the REF-polluted air of university corridors, Lord Stern’s review is almost as sensitive a subject as his previous inquiry into the economics of climate change.

The recommendations, published last week, have largely been well received, and the full details are set out in our news pages.

Perhaps the most contentious issue he addresses is whether credit for research should reside with the person who did it, moving with them when they change jobs, or with the university where they were based at the time the work was carried out.

In previous exercises, the credit moved with the academic. Stern wants this to change, in the hope of ending the wheeling and dealing immediately before REF deadlines.

For the academics concerned this feeding frenzy is a boon. There are big pay days on offer, and in our news pages this week we report on a study that shows that a cynical approach to pre-REF recruitment, with the inevitable inequality it creates within departments, does pay off from a university perspective. It also chimes with the sense that researchers are working for themselves (or, perhaps, for their field) rather than for their institution.

Stern’s suggestion, then, that credit should stay with the institution where work was carried out will cause ructions. It’s not only established professors who may worry: early career researchers have also raised concerns about the impact of such a change. But the reality is that the REF has always been an institutional – rather than individual – review, and he’s right to address the indisputable excesses of the transfer market and game-playing (the suggestion that all staff be submitted to the REF 2020 should help to achieve the latter goal too).

Some seem to think that Stern’s proposals will result in no one moving job ever again, but the more likely shift is that hiring will happen much earlier in the REF cycle to allow outputs to be built up.

It’s also the case that no amount of rejigging will abolish the targets and spreadsheets culture that now exists in research management. Stern might be accused of wishful thinking if he believes that a new approach to REF submission in 2020 – including everyone but allowing greater flexibility in the number of outputs required from individuals – will suddenly mean that everyone has time for labours of love such as The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.

But his review offers a road to a better REF: one that should more accurately reflect the best research departments, be more inclusive for academics, and less burdensome for administrators. If it doesn’t change the climate, at least it promises to improve the weather.

You've reached your article limit

Register to continue

Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 6 articles each month, plus:

  • Sign up for the editor's highlights
  • Receive World University Rankings news first
  • Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
  • Participate in reader discussions and post comments

Reader's comments (1)

It is extremely naive to believe that the REF is an institutional exercise when each institution turns it into an individual KPI. Our institution has individual REF targets. Hit yours and people stop pestering you. Miss it and your teaching load may mysteriously increase or your budget for conference travel disappear. It is also naive to believe that the institution deserves 100% of the return to work from academic employees, leaving the employee indentured to that institution so that VCs can not have their budget compromised by annoying academics that other VCs are willing to poach (I can hear them crying "Dear Lord, protect me from myself since otherwise I will make that outrageous offer so as to improve my institutions REF outcome"). The idea that institutions and VCs are so benevolent that once they have made claims to people's IP that they will not engage in rent seeking for the institution is just nuts. More on this at:

Have your say

Log in or register to post comments

Featured Jobs

Research Officer - Big Data for Better Outcomes LONDON SCHOOL OF ECONOMICS & POLITICAL SCIENCE LSE
Lecturer in Oral Microbiology UNIVERSITY OF BRISTOL

Most Commented

question marks PhD study

Selecting the right doctorate is crucial for success. Robert MacIntosh and Kevin O'Gorman share top 10 tips on how to pick a PhD

India, UK, flag

Sir Keith Burnett reflects on what he learned about international students while in India with the UK prime minister

Pencil lying on open diary

Requesting a log of daily activity means that trust between the institution and the scholar has broken down, says Toby Miller

Application for graduate job
Universities producing the most employable graduates have been ranked by companies around the world in the Global University Employability Ranking 2016
Construction workers erecting barriers

Directly linking non-EU recruitment to award levels in teaching assessment has also been under consideration, sources suggest