REF review warning over universities setting out research plans

Future research excellence framework could incorporate information on the ‘future plans of institutions’

February 27, 2016
Baron Stern of Brentford
Source: British Academy
Lord Stern, president of the British Academy

A senior figure in the Higher Education Funding Council for England has cautioned against any move to make universities spell out in detail how they would spend block grant research funding as part of a rejigged research excellence framework (REF).

Steven Hill, head of research policy at Hefce, alerted delegates at a conference in London last week to a “rather interesting” question posed in a call for evidence from the ongoing review of the REF, which assesses research quality, led by the president of the British Academy, Lord Stern.

“Much of the REF focuses on the retrospective analysis of success achieved by institutions either through output or impact. Yet the resources provided anticipate continued success based on that track record,” it notes.

“How can the REF better address the future plans of institutions and how they will utilise quality related funding obtained through the exercise?” the call for evidence asks.

Basing QR funding on future plans, rather than just the quality and impact of past research as assessed by the REF, would be a “big departure” from the current system, Dr Hill told Science, Innovation and the UK Research Budget, hosted by Policy-UK on 25 February. 

In a later question and answer session, he defended the flexibility afforded by QR funding. It “allows [universities] to do what they think is right…it allows them to be responsive and to move quickly…and allows them to support really innovative and risky research”, he said.

“I would worry about a system that forces universities to say up front in too much detail” about how they would spend their QR funding, he said.

Lord Stern’s review is expected to report by the summer of 2016. According to the terms of reference set out by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, it will look at “simplifying and reducing the administrative burden on the HE sector” and whether more data and metrics could be used as part of a “lighter-touch” assessment.

Speaking about cutting the expense of the REF, Dr Hill said that it would be a “very big challenge in reducing those costs in a way that maintains the integrity of the system”.

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Print headline: Hefce warning on micromanaging research cash

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