A REF change that would lose telling details

June 2, 2016

Nobody likes bureaucracy, but detail can matter. In the case of the research excellence framework, the process of choosing and submitting individual units of research for assessment is complex and time-consuming. The word “burden” is used a lot by university staff, and many academics will look at the “simpler, lighter touch system” envisaged by REF reviewer Lord Stern with high hopes.

The REF is nevertheless an example where cutting corners in pursuit of a simpler life could lead us down a dark alley. This is not to say that the assessment is perfect in its current form: the University Alliance made that clear in our response to the Stern Review.

Rather, the proposal currently being presented by the Russell Group and others to assess institutional research performance in its totality, instead of individual units, would weaken the UK’s science and research base.

Unit-level assessment is important because it generates granular data for the purposes of allocating funding. That in turn ensures that research excellence is identified wherever it exists, even at smaller institutions that have historically received less funding or none.

The granularity of the data also promotes dynamism in the sector, shining light on emerging pockets of excellence.

By contrast, assessing institutional performance in its totality would overlook excellence wherever it is to be found, and funding would then be further concentrated among a handful of universities.

Allocating research funding on the basis of scale or past funding volume would not improve the overall performance of the research base. It would bring only diminishing returns while undermining the richness and diversity of UK science and research. By preserving the granularity of the REF through assessment of individual units, that outcome can be avoided.

Alistair Fitt
Vice-chancellor, Oxford Brookes University, and research lead, University Alliance

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Reader's comments (1)

"the granularity of the data also promotes dynamism in the sector' You could not make it up: that a Vice-Chancellor should think that sentence is of any possible merit is sufficient evidence of quite how well the REF (or whatever its backers have chosen as this week's acronym for mass mendacity and paid bullying) has turned UK universities into a cross between "Dad's Army" and "Are you Being Served"

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