REF submission rules ‘could increase burden’ on departments

New rules for staff eligibility designed to make compliance easier are in fact more complicated than before, academics warn

July 30, 2018
Acrobats spinning plates

New rules on staff submissions for the UK’s research excellence framework could create more work for department leaders than before, despite a drive to reduce complexity, universities have warned.

Reforms for the 2021 exercise state that all staff with “major research responsibility” will be required to submit at least one output for assessment, in a bid to give a better picture of institutional performance and to end the “stigma” associated with non-submission.

Research England has now outlined how universities will have to identify staff with major responsibility but institutions have warned of challenges in identifying when potential exemptions – based around issues such as part-time contracts, or health and family-related leave – should apply.

Research England will check university submissions against records held by the Higher Education Statistics Agency and departments face being penalised if they apply the rules incorrectly.

Simon Kerridge, director of research services at the University of Kent, said that taking care to ensure that all individual staff circumstances are accounted for “will be a huge burden” for university departments.

“It is hard to argue against the exemptions on equality grounds, but the burden will be at least as high as last time, [if not] more so with more staff,” said Professor Kerridge.

“This is a major stress point and a source of anxiety [since] every department will want to get it right and yet there will be no extra pairs of hands to help us.”

Liz Bromley, acting chief executive of the University Alliance mission group, said “getting the equality and diversity proposals right” would be a “nagging concern” for group leaders.

While funding bodies had clearly “listened carefully to the sector’s concerns”, she said that “accounting for special staff circumstances, while clearly important, is a tricky business”.

“The drawbacks of the current proposals are difficult to ignore,” Ms Bromley added.

Martin Eve, professor of literature, technology and publishing at Birkbeck, University of London, agreed that the biggest “challenge” in implementing the rules around submissions “lies in capturing the edge cases” – those where it is difficult to determine eligibility – while at the same time “ensuring equality and diversity provision remains strong”.

“While ‘research-active’ sounds straightforward, different institutions have a variety of staff in many roles that require special treatment; research assistants, for instance,” Professor Eve explained.

Kim Hackett, Research England’s REF director, said that there would be many institutions where all staff would have significant responsibility for research, and in these cases a 100 per cent submission rate was expected.

“Responses to our consultation last year made clear that contractual definitions alone will not always accurately identify significant responsibility, and that an alternative approach for determining this would be needed,” she said. “For many institutions where this applies, employment expectations are captured in an auditable way – for example, through workload models – that will allow significant responsibility to be identified without much additional burden.

“It should be clear that this will not be about making judgements of expected performance, but about the activity that staff are employed to undertake.”

Professor Eve added that, “while the new guidelines are, in some ways, complicated, we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that for the last REF, institutions also played their own complex games to attempt to rig submission in their favour. A certain degree of complexity seems, to me, to be part of REF and is unavoidable.”

rachael.pells@timeshighereducation.com

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