Modern languages ‘sold short by REF’

The merger of seven subpanels into a single one for modern languages and linguistics has skewed results, claim scholars

August 26, 2015
Student using college language lab
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Switched off: languages academics feel harshly judged in the REF

Modern languages studies may have been harshly treated in the research excellence framework (REF) because it was assessed in the same subpanel as linguistics, academics have claimed.

With language departments already under pressure from declining student numbers, some scholars have complained that the structure of the panel used to judge their research has done little to help the subject area.

Under new arrangements adopted for the 2014 REF, modern languages research was included alongside linguistics in subpanel 28, rather than being assessed separately in seven smaller subject units, as in the 2008 research assessment exercise (RAE).

However, the results of a survey by the University Council of Modern Languages, which received responses from 34 universities, shows that about half of the 45 scholars who responded would like to see the current structure changed.

Their unhappiness may be prompted by concerns expressed in the survey that linguistics research was judged more positively than submissions from modern languages, which they claim has “skewed” results tables to benefit institutions focused on linguistics.

Conflating the two subject areas had led to a “systemic outcome whereby linguistics submissions occupy the top ranks, to the virtual exclusion of other submissions”, said one academic quoted in the survey.

“The top-ranked institutions (based on a linguistics submission) are sometimes institutions where there is little or no provision for undertaking study or research in modern languages,” which rendered rankings “meaningless or misleading”, the respondent added.

Another scholar called for the reinstatement of a separate panel for linguistics as “it seemed to me that this skewed the results”, while others called for the return of language-specific tables to show where departments did well.

That may benefit some universities that have previously done well in smaller units of assessment, such as the University of Oxford, which was ranked 32nd on grade point average in 2014 in subpanel 28 despite having topped many language tables in 2008.

Naomi Segal, the UCML’s vice-chair (research) and professorial fellow in French and German studies at Birkbeck, University of London, who oversaw the survey, said many respondents had raised the issue of whether linguistics research had been viewed more favourably.

Panel assessors may have been more impressed by linguistics research given that it can often feature cognitive science and other clinical sciences, said Professor Segal.

“It tends to look more convincing because it has practical findings and is often linked to bigger grant awards because of its links to science,” she said.

But Kersti Börjars, professor of linguistics at the University of Manchester, who chaired subpanel 28, said the overall improved results are a “reason to celebrate for any discipline that fell within the panel.

“The outcome of REF 2014 shows that research in subdisciplines of ‘modern languages’ is doing exceptionally well in the UK,” said Professor Börjars, who explained that “an extra round of calibration” and discussions had taken place to reassure panel members that a “common sense of quality levels emerged”.

Dividing the research that was submitted to the subpanel into separate categories for modern languages and linguistics would not recognise the diversity of either, she added.

“Our concern was to ensure fair assessment of all subdisciplines that were returned within our subpanel, be it traditional philological editing, medieval literature, instrumental phonetics, modern cultural studies, typological linguistics or any other subdiscipline.”


Print headline: Modern languages REF results ‘skewed’ by subpanel merger

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Reader's comments (3)

I challenge Professors Bojars and Segal to defend the REF as anything other than the farcical tool of a government happy to change the rules in order to distribute funds as it chooses, under the spurious pretence of "objectivity"
Readers may be interested in a response to this article which appears on the University Council of Modern Languages (UCML) website:
Why so negative? The THE has also published a response (from the Chairs of sub panel 28) countering its interpretation of the survey in such negative tones. See:


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