Parallel REF tests cause concern

Two-pronged approach to the research excellence framework worries managers, writes Zoe Corbyn

August 20, 2009

Universities are considering whether to throw their hats into the ring for a pilot exercise to test how impact could be assessed under the research excellence framework.

The Higher Education Funding Council for England has written to vice-chancellors to ask whether they want to participate, but there is concern over how the pilot will sit beside a sector-wide consultation on the REF.

One senior figure in the sector said it was odd that the pilot and consultation will overlap rather than one testing the other's findings.

Another suggested it would have been better to do the pilot first then consult on its conclusions.

They pointed out that Hefce "learnt a lot from piloting bibliometrics": their role in the REF proposals has been reduced in light of the results.

Hefce is due to launch its formal three-month consultation on the framework - which will include proposals for assessing the economic and social impact of research - late next month.

The impact pilot will run from autumn 2009 to mid-2010.

In its letter to vice-chancellors, Hefce says that using impact in the assessment process is "largely new and comparatively untried". It adds: "For this reason, and given that the timetable for implementing the REF is tight, we plan to run a pilot exercise to test and inform the further development of our approach."

Trevor McMillan, pro vice-chancellor for research at Lancaster University, said he was not surprised that the pilot and consultation were running in parallel, given the timeframe Hefce is working to.

The REF is due to inform funding from 2014, and he said there could be pressure to add another year to this timetable.

He predicted that many universities, including Lancaster, would be volunteering for the pilot and said taking part would "help us to get our heads around what we need to do".

Bob Allison, pro vice-chancellor for research at the University of Sussex, said he had "no problem" with the overlap between the consultation and pilot, "provided there is a feed-in mechanism between the two".

Hefce stressed that its "broad approach" to assessing impact in the REF, which will replace the research assessment exercise as the mechanism for the annual allocation of nearly £2 billion in research funding, had been drawn up through informal consultation and expert advice.

A Hefce spokesman said: "We will consult on this during autumn 2009, but also wish to test the approach in detail and refine it further through a pilot exercise. This will start during the REF consultation period and will continue through to summer 2010, taking on board feedback from the consultation."

He declined to rule out an extension to the timetable.

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