Scrap REF and allocate QR funding by headcount, says professor

Oxford’s Dorothy Bishop says spread of funding would be largely unchanged

November 23, 2018
Source: iStock

Quality-related research funding should be distributed in England on the basis of the size of a university’s research workforce, not its performance in the research excellence framework, according to a leading academic.

Dorothy Bishop, professor of developmental neuropsychology at the University of Oxford, said that it was “time for a rethink” on the way QR funding is allocated and, in particular, on the role of the REF, which “wastes time and generates bad incentives”.

Professor Bishop said that analysis of the last REF showed that if you “dispense with the review of quality, you can obtain similar outcomes by allocating funding at institutional level in relation to research volume”.

The government should, therefore, consider allocating block funding in proportion to the number of research-active staff at a university because that would shrink the burden on universities and reduce perverse incentives in the system, she said.

Quality-related funding is distributed in the UK based on the proportion of research at an institution that is rated as 4* (world-leading), 3* (internationally excellent) and so on. But, giving a lecture organised by the Council for the Defence of British Universities, Professor Bishop said that the REF was having a “negative effect on the UK’s research culture” because it encouraged academics to favour speed over careful scholarship and pushed universities to base hiring decisions on how “REF-able” a scholar is.

As a result, UK research is “not getting better but getting worse”, she said.

The original goal of the REF’s predecessor, the research assessment exercise, was to provide a means of distributing funds transparently, but subsequent attempts to “tweak” the process had simply resulted in more problems within the system, Professor Bishop continued.

For example, the change of the relative weighting given to 4* and 3* research in the funding formula from 3:1 to 4:1 after the last REF simply entrenched the advantage enjoyed by the universities of Oxford and Cambridge and leading London institutions, Professor Bishop argued.

“The rich get richer and the poor get poorer,” she said. “And any formula that did not put Oxford, Cambridge and London at the top would be unacceptable.”

Professor Bishop said that the government should stop trying to design “perfect, comprehensive evaluation systems” because achieving that ideal was not realistic. Instead, it needed to weigh the benefits of the current excellence evaluations against the costs of an inevitably incomplete and imperfect system.

However, Professor Bishop reserved her harshest criticisms for the more recently introduced teaching excellence framework. Although the REF was “not an unmitigated evil, the TEF should be strangled at birth”, she said.

Rather than trying to measure teaching standards via proxies such as scores in the National Student Survey, Professor Bishop argued that English institutions should revert to a system under which “the rare failures of teaching are dealt with by the [Quality Assurance Agency]”.

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Reader's comments (6)

I haven't worked in the UK system for a while, but isn't it the case that the current headcount of 'research active staff' has been shaped by years of RAE/REF assessment, funding and local strategising? Also, the current distribution isn't the same as we saw when RAE was in its early rounds, particularly if one drills down to subject levels. It took some of the large metro universities a while to climb the ranks & some newish unis did surprisingly well in the first round(s) (e.g. Lancaster, where we had no inkling that we were good at research). I'm all for reducing inefficiencies and perverse incentives; less sure about making permanent the current distribution of advantage and disadvantage.
Oxbridge prof punts idea to bake in research funding to elite universities shocker.
It is a very simple piece of analysis to plot REF ranking against number of researchers, and thus see there is a very strong correlation, with a couple of outliers which give a far better indication of the relative strength of an institution rather than its ranking place. The lesson to Universities wanting to rise up the rankings is simple, stop building new buildings and hire more researchers!
This is QR-funding, not all research funding. So this proposal would achieve something akin to the current distribution of QR-funds, whilst freeing up more time for actual research and reducing bureaucracy, yet also allowing change (if institutions hire more researchers) and doing nothing to impede the winning of grants from funding bodies via processes that include peer review. Seems fair and sensible to me.
Good idea. I certainly agree that the REF has done real harm to the standards of research. The only problem that I see is who decides who is "research-active"? It's predictable that, if QR funding were distributed on the basis of the number of research-active people, we'd find that a lot of research-active people would suddenly materialise. Never underestimate the dishonesty of large organisations,
Just to say that the lecture with audio will be posted online soon, but meanwhile, the slides are here: Includes a plot of the association between N staff entered and final power score.