The next research excellence framework will require universities to submit all research-active academics for assessment, according to a joint consultation document from the UK’s four funding bodies on arrangements for the next exercise in 2021.
During the previous REF, managers could choose which researchers to submit for assessment. But an independent review of REF 2014, chaired by Lord Stern, said that this did not lead to an accurate picture of a university’s true research strength.
Lord Stern’s report, Building on Success and Learning from Experience, argued that submitting all researchers to the next exercise could remedy that problem, and remove the stigma associated with not taking part.
But two other key recommendations of Lord Stern’s review, about the portability of research and the number of outputs each researcher should submit for assessment, have not yet been adopted. Instead the four UK funding councils are now seeking views on them.
The consultation document proposes that “all research-active [academics] should be included” in the REF 2021, but it acknowledges that this approach might lead to universities changing some staff contracts to alter people’s eligibility.
Critics have previously argued that requiring all research staff to be submitted could lead to weaker research staff being moved on to teaching-only contracts. The consultation is asking specifically for views on the definition of “research-active” staff.
The funding councils are also seeking views on the Stern review’s recommendation that the link between research outputs and individual researchers be broken. He argued that the number of outputs submitted by individuals should be anywhere between zero and six instead of the four prescribed in REF 2014, to help accommodate those at the start of their careers and promote cohesiveness within departments.
The consultation asks for comments on the minimum and maximum number of outputs per staff member, as well as thoughts about an average of two being required for each full-time member of staff.
Another of Lord Stern’s key recommendations was to attribute research to the institution where the output was “demonstrably generated” in order to stop universities poaching star researchers ahead of the assessment to boost scores with their research.
But this idea prompted concern among early career academics who feared that not being able to take their research with them would affect them disproportionately. The consultation document says that there could be significant challenges for universities in having to demonstrate where the work was generated, and it acknowledges the potential negative consequences for junior scholars.
The consultation asks whether publication date could act as a suitable marker of where research took place and whether outputs could be shared proportionally between universities if an academic moves between them.
Kieron Flanagan, senior lecturer in science and technology policy at the University of Manchester, said that the consultation document “seems to start from an acceptance of the main gist of the Stern review”.
“Interestingly the document doesn’t take a position on the most contentious aspect, portability of outputs, rather inviting views in general on the issue,” he said.
Richard Watermeyer, director of research in the department of education at the University of Bath, said that universal submission to the REF is “much needed” but that it offered a “slippery slope” to selectivity.
“Suddenly universities might turn around and say so and so is not looking like they are going to produce a REF-able return so do we put them on a contract that will remove them from a research contract,” he said.
He added that everyone would like to think that changes to the REF will reduce the instance of institutions working the system to their advantage. He said he doubted that would happen given the hypercompetitive environment of higher education in the UK.
James Wilsdon, professor of research policy at the University of Sheffield, said that with his review Lord Stern wanted to make the REF simpler, and less time- and labour-intensive as well as move it away from an individual assessment towards an institutional one.
“But the problem is will institutions respond in that spirit to these recommendations,” he asked. “Even if the assessment moves up a level, if universities carry on using the REF as their proxy performance management framework, the benefits that Stern is intending may not be realised in full.”
Meanwhile, David Sweeney, director of research, education and knowledge exchange, said that the funding councils would consider the responses to the consultation. “We are promoting some options but we are open to alternative suggestions that may better capture the principles [of the Stern review],” he said.