Game-playing to continue in REF 2021, conference told

Economist says universities will simply ‘play different types of games’ after Stern review

March 10, 2017
players move goal
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Moving the goalposts: all Lord Stern’s recommendations would do is ‘change the nature of the game’

A major review designed to reduce “game-playing” in the UK’s next research excellence framework will only drive universities to find alternative ways to play the system, it has been warned.

John Gathergood, associate professor in economics at the University of Nottingham, said that the sector should not “pretend” that practices such as the recruitment of staff shortly before the REF census date would be ended by the recommendations of Lord Stern’s review, since “universities will play different types of games”.

The UK’s funding councils are consulting until 17 March on plans to accept Lord Stern’s recommendation that all research-active staff should be submitted to REF 2021. They are also seeking views on other recommendations, including a proposal to give credit for outputs to the institution at which they were “demonstrably generated”, potentially taking the heat out of the traditional pre-REF “transfer market” for academics.

Speaking at a Westminster Higher Education Forum event on 7 March, Dr Gathergood said that all Lord Stern’s recommendations would do is “change the nature of the game”.

For example, the recommendation on submitting all research-active staff could be gamed because research and teaching contracts are “not fixed” categories, Dr Gathergood said. This would allow universities to selectively submit staff by moving scholars onto a teaching contract if their research output was not strong enough.

This potential for manipulation also applied to the Higher Education Statistics Agency’s cost centres (the way Hesa defines subject areas, which align closely with REF units of assessment). Universities could “strategically change” the Hesa codes of individual staff for the purposes of forming a REF submission, and could “hide” staff in niche units for which no submission was made, Dr Gathergood said.

If I was a university, I might start a liberal arts school and put people in a liberal arts school, because these Hesa cost centres are not fixed,” he said.

Elsewhere, a number of speakers said that Lord Stern’s recommendations for tackling the issue of research portability were problematic.

Katy McKen, head of research information and intelligence at the University of Bath, said that if the recommendation was about “closing that transfer market”, the sector should question how much it “can actually fix”.

“Academics are always going to move between institutions [and] it will simply move that transfer window from the end of the REF period to the beginning,” she said. “I have grave concerns for what that means for certain groups, particularly early career researchers.

“You can imagine a situation where there’s lots of new posts at the start of the REF period – but what about those [postdoctoral researchers] whose contracts run out in the last 12 months of the period? Are there going to be any jobs for them?”

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