Lord Stern review: no ‘foregone conclusions’ about future of REF

Chair of review into research excellence framework also defends decision to have steering committee dominated by Russell Group

December 22, 2015
Ring-tailed lemur licking tail
Lord Stern said exercises such as the REF have helped remove a 'long tail' of unproductive academics

Will Santa bring academics the gift of a slightly less burdensome research excellence framework (REF)?

Last week, the government appointed Baron Stern of Brentford, president of the British Academy, to head a major new review of the exercise that would “cut red tape” and reduce the “administrative burden on institutions”.

But, speaking to Times Higher Education, Lord Stern insisted that there were no “foregone conclusions” about what the investigation might recommend, and said that it might find the current system was “all fine”.

It is estimated that the REF 2014 cost nearly £250 million, about 2.4 per cent of the total funds its results will inform, although this is less than the 4 per cent administration costs thought to be incurred distributing grants through research councils.

Lord Stern said that in the 1970s and 1980s, there was a “long tail of academics who should have been doing more” but the introduction of assessments such as the REF had helped to improve standards.

Yet he added: “At the same time, sometimes the mechanisms of how you do things can grow…has it become too heavy?”

“Are young academics taking a long-term view about what is interesting…or are they being overwhelmed by a narrower question” about how to publish papers in high-ranking journals, he asked.

“All these are questions,” he stressed. “In exploring these questions we might decide it’s all fine.”

The Department for Business, Innovation and Skills said in a statement last week that the review, expected to report by summer 2016, would “cut red tape so that universities can focus more on delivering the world-leading research for which the UK is renowned”.

Lord Stern said that “'red tape’ is not my own language” but “the issue of burden” was important.

As with the government’s higher education Green Paper, released in November, BIS stressed that the review would look to cut “administrative burden” as well as look at potentially controversial metric measures of research excellence, which can include paper citations.

But Lord Stern said that there was no “foregone conclusion” about the results and that Jo Johnson, the universities minister, “has been encouraging us to look at this in an open way”.  

The nine-member steering committee includes seven academics and vice-chancellors from UK universities, all but one from members of the Russell Group.

Responding to the review, Dave Phoenix, chair of the Million+ group of newer universities and vice-chancellor of London South Bank University, said that it was “surprising and disappointing” that the panel “does not include any modern university” and that there “are also no representatives from Wales, Northern Ireland or the funding councils and only one university from Scotland”.

Asked about this criticism, Lord Stern said that he had looked for panel members from a “range of subjects” and for “people who are outstanding”.

“Outstanding people are necessary to recognise excellence,” he said. “They are of the highest intellectual quality” and had experience in “running things”.

The panel was not meant to be “a parliament of universities”, he said, but added that “we want to hear from everybody” about the future of the REF.

david.matthews@tesglobal.com

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Print headline: No ‘foregone conclusions’ about the future of REF, insists Lord Stern

Reader's comments (1)

One might have hoped that the British Academy would have denounced the manifest hypocrisies and the mindless managerialism of the REF and the RAE in its own name. But the self perpetuating academic gerontocracies in this country are craven, and all too often complicit. Any European or North American academic knows that the RAE and the REF are expensive charades which shame UK universities: most UK academics dare not tell this truth.

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