Number of researchers in REF ‘up 43 per cent’ under new rules

Big increase would represent less than three-quarters of eligible headcount suggested by official data

January 23, 2020
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More than 20,000 additional full-time equivalent UK academics are set to be entered into next year’s research excellence framework under new rules requiring all staff with “significant responsibility for research” to participate.

Preliminary data on university submission plans published by Research England on 23 January show that institutions expect to submit 74,584 full-time equivalent staff for the 2021 assessment, up 43 per cent from the 2014 total of 52,077.

However, this is estimated to represent only 73 per cent of the total eligible population, based on Higher Education Statistics Agency data for the number of staff on “research only” or “teaching and research” contracts.

The “significant responsibility for research” rule was introduced following an independent review of the REF led by Lord Stern, former president of the British Academy, which was published in 2016 and criticised the “game-playing” of institutions who sought to improve their REF standing by excluding certain researchers.

However, they triggered concerns that universities would look to change the contractual status of staff whose research performance did not meet expectations.

The REF rules do permit a number of reasons for staff not to be submitted. Small research units with fewer than five full-time equivalent researchers can request an exemption, while issues such as family leave, secondments and sickness can lead to individual researchers being excluded.

Times Higher Education understands that Research England regards the shortfall in submission numbers as being largely the result of some academics recorded by Hesa as being on teaching and research contracts not actually having “significant responsibility” for research, and hence being ineligible for submission.

The agency said that the “scale of the increase [in submitted staff] reflects changes made to the way that staff are submitted to the exercise, moving from a selective approach in REF 2014 to submitting all staff with significant responsibility for research”.

The biggest rise in submissions is expected to be in the social sciences, where 23,194 full-time equivalent researchers are expected to be assessed, up 60.9 per cent on 2014.

There is a 43.8 per cent rise in medicine, health and life sciences, a 34.5 per cent rise across physical sciences, engineering and mathematics, and a 29.6 per cent rise in arts and humanities.

Writing for THE this week, Lord Stern and David Sweeney, Research England’s executive chair, say the requirement to return all research-active staff was “about promoting inclusion, addressing the negative consequences for staff associated with exclusion in previous exercises, and encouraging the presentation of a rounder picture of research activity”.

Research England will use the new data to inform recruitment to REF assessment sub-panels. Despite the increase in participating academics, the number of outputs is expected to increase by 2 per cent only. In the 2014 exercise, all selected staff were expected to submit four outputs, but this time around they can submit between one and five, with departments expected to have an average of 2.5 outputs for each full-time researcher.

The number of impact case studies is expected to increase by 1 per cent.

“Funding bodies aimed to ensure the overall number submitted did not substantially vary from the number returned in 2014. This was to ensure the workload of the panels was manageable, given the increase expected in staff,” said Research England, which added that the data indicated that the policy was “expected to broadly achieve the intended aim.”

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