Research England is to launch a “real-time” review of the research excellence framework to test whether reforms made following the Stern review are making a tangible difference to academic workloads.
Around 600 academics at four UK universities will be surveyed on their views about the exercise over the next six months, as preparations for the 2021 assessment continue, with the results expected to be available by early 2019.
If the approach proves successful, Research England plan to run a larger longitudinal survey over a period of four years across a wider section of the research community, with repeated surveys each year to assess how academics’ experience and perception of REF 2021 changes through the cycle. The final results for this longer study would become available by 2021-22 and be used to review the assessment process for future cycles as needed.
The study being conducted this year involves academics across a range of disciplines at Cardiff University, Nottingham Trent University, the University of Sussex and the University of Sheffield. It will focus on the impact of changes to the REF following Lord Stern’s review, including the requirement for all research-active staff to be submitted, said James Wilsdon, professor of research policy at Sheffield and co-investigator of the review.
“We want to explore all of these issues: how researchers at every level are experiencing REF 2021 in its early stages, how it compares to REF 2014 if they were involved then too, what effects it has on their workload, management culture, priorities, interdisciplinary, and what their perceptions are of how the exercise is being run in their university or department,” he said.
The survey data will be supplemented by more in-depth interviews with REF managers and decision makers within the participating institutions.
David Sweeney, executive chair of Research England, welcomed the pilot scheme as “an opportunity to test evaluating REF 2021 in a new way, informing the collection of evaluative data for shaping exercises post 2021.”
Netta Weinstein, senior lecturer in Cardiff’s School of Psychology and principal investigator for the project, said it was “important to understand the influences on our perceptions of, and attitudes towards, the REF”.
“While many individuals in academia hold strong opinions about aspects of the REF, little rigorous research has been conducted into these,” she said. “We want to better understand the changing effects of the REF on research cultures, institutions and individuals.”