Whether the UK still needs a research excellence framework (REF) in order to drive up research quality is a “very open question”, according to a steering group member of the recent Stern Review into the controversial exercise.
Dame Julia King, former vice-chancellor of Aston University, argued instead that the purpose of the periodic review now was to justify public investment and decide how to distribute money between universities.
Since 1986 the UK has run centralised assessments of research quality, with the 2014 REF arguably the most complex and wide-ranging so far. It has been criticised as overly burdensome and stressful for academics, but one of the key arguments in favour has been that this competitive process has helped to improve the quality of UK research over recent decades.
Last year’s review of the REF, led by British Academy president Lord Stern, concluded that “over thirty years the RAE [the research assessment exercise – the REF’s predecessor]/REF has supported a sustained improvement in the quality and productivity of the UK research base.”
But speaking at a conference in London on 14 February, Dame Julia said that while the steering group had believed that “historically” there was “strong” evidence the exercise had improved standards, this was now not necessarily the case.
“I think we thought there was a very open question about having got to where we’ve got to, having got the kind of competitive [research system], do you now need it to continue driving research quality up,” she said.
“I think we had some discussion about whether…you still needed it,” Dame Julia told delegates at Promoting Excellent Research: Learning from REF2014 and Implementing the Stern Review, hosted by Policy-UK.
“But we also felt this is a large expenditure of public money and there is a very important issue about accounting for and demonstrating we deliver value for public money and also that we need to have a way of distributing this very significant sum of public money,” she added.
The UK’s four funding bodies are now seeking further views on some of the Stern review’s recommendations, such as the idea that academics should not be able to enter pieces of research done at previous universities.