REF should include all academics, says University of Cambridge

Lobbying intensifies ahead of Lord Stern's review of crucial assessment into university research performance

April 25, 2016
Shaking hands
Source: Alamy

The University of Cambridge has proposed a “radical” shake-up of the research excellence framework (REF) so that every academic, even those on teaching-only contracts, would be submitted to the assessment exercise.

The future shape of the REF, currently being reviewed, is being fought over by UK universities, with Cambridge’s ideas perhaps the most controversial yet.

At the moment, departments can choose to submit any number of researchers to the REF, which Cambridge says is to blame for much of the gaming that occurs during the process.

“All academic staff, irrespective of whether their contracts are teaching-only, research-only or both, should be returned. This would have the twin benefits of increasing the accuracy and integrity of the exercise and significantly reducing its cost,” says the university’s submission to the review.

“If the staff return is restricted to staff with a research element in their contracts there is a risk that institutions alter employment contracts of their academic staff to enable particular individuals to be included or excluded,” it says. “This can be hugely detrimental for those staff who have been excluded.”

It also proposes scrapping a limit of four papers per researcher as this “discriminates against highly-productive, world-leading researchers”.

The university also supports looking at an institution’s overall research performance rather than assessing it at a more granular level, echoing the view of the Russell Group, of which it is a member.

“Cambridge proposes radical change to the current REF model with a move to a process of institutional research evaluation. Cambridge considers that the totality of an institution’s research output must be considered a key element of the evaluation of its research quality and environment,” it says.

This view has already been criticised by the University Alliance of younger institutions, which generally receive less money from the REF, as it would risk handing even more resources to universities that already do well, and potentially ignoring pockets of excellence in less research-intensive universities.

The current review of the REF is being led by Lord Stern, president of the British Academy, and is expected to report in the summer.

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Reader's comments (4)

Does this include all college tutors at Cambridge and Oxford?
One advantage of the Cambridge proposal is that it would lead to the comprehensive exposure of ersatz professors.
Presumably irrespective of contract means people on adjunct, temporary, casual and part-time contracts too ? The logic for their inclusion would be the same. In which case this is very brave of Cambridge. And otherwise, very hypocritical. The point about 4 papers is nonsense and a reward for volume will incentivise colleagues to do even less of the activities that do not lead to publication, like teaching and management. It will also make out lives a misery.
...or better still, why not include all admin and academic-related staff too. Of course not all such staff - indeed very few - will be REFable. But the incentive will be to limit the size of this group of staff, necesary though they are, in relation to researching staff. Conversely there will also be an incentive to increase the proportion of researching staff, actual academics, in any given university in relation to that of non-researching staff. (please send my acceptance of knighthood form to me at my work address).