REF is a misery for early career researchers, survey finds

Young academics cite bullying, pressure to publish and casualisation as downsides of assessment exercise

April 30, 2015

Early career researchers overwhelmingly feel that the research excellence framework has created “a huge amount of pressure and anxiety, which impacts particularly on those at the bottom rung of the career ladder”.

This is one of the findings of a survey of nearly 200 early career researchers from across the UK conducted earlier this year by Charlotte Mathieson, a research fellow at the University of Warwick’s Institute of Advanced Study.

Presenting her results at Westminster Higher Education Forum’s “Next Steps for the REF” conference on 23 April, Dr Mathieson said that many of the respondents blamed the REF for creating a “culture of aggression and bullying” and a “two-tier hierarchy between teaching and research which is used to inhibit career mobility of those stuck in teaching positions”.

Many respondents (19 per cent of whom were current PhD students, and 42 per cent of whom were submitted to the REF) also bemoaned the creation of an increasingly competitive job market “focused solely on ‘REFable’ publications”.

Generating those publications was made more difficult by the rise in “precarious, short-term and typically teaching-heavy workloads”, which respondents also blamed on the REF.

“The connections between the REF and the casualisation of higher education seem, at least to early career researchers, intricately bound up, and this is perhaps the most troubling change that it has driven in recent years,” Dr Mathieson said.

The boom and bust hiring cycles generated by the REF “can work in favour of those who are in the right place at the right time”, she said. But even those hired for the REF were sometimes put on casual contracts and subsequently laid off. “Insecurity and anxiety were the watchwords of this survey,” Dr Mathieson said.

She conceded that some of the cultural shifts within higher education to which the respondents objected were driven by “processes that extend beyond” the REF itself. However, the exercise was “a focal point around which early career academics see very real, material impacts”.

As a result, she said, the REF also had the potential to drive “more positive changes”.

For instance, 68 per cent of respondents felt that the inclusion of impact had made them think about public engagement from an early stage of their research.

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