Stern reforms made REF more burdensome than ever, v-cs complain

Anonymous interviews with UK university bosses reveal frustration with increased administrative costs associated with REF

December 3, 2021
Person carries a  frame loaded with weight to illustrate Stern reforms made REF more burdensome than ever, v-cs complain
Source: Getty

Radical changes designed to streamline the research excellence framework may have actually increased red tape and made it “even more burdensome than previous exercises”, according to university leaders.

In a major assessment of the REF, commissioned by Research England, 19 vice-chancellors gave their views on how reforms, implemented following the 2016 report by Lord Stern of Brentford, had altered the UK’s national audit of research since its last exercise in 2014.

While some of the changes – such as the requirement to submit outputs from all research-active staff, as opposed to the selection of researchers by departments – were welcomed because they were more inclusive and reduced game-playing (“it’s reduced the emotional burden because everyone’s in,” said one university leader), the “majority of institutional leaders interviewed highlighted…that REF 2021 was even more burdensome than previous exercises”, says the study.

“I think Stern had the laudable aim of saving us time and reducing the bureaucratic burden, but it just hasn’t happened,” explained one vice-chancellor quoted in the report, produced by the not-for-profit research organisation Rand Europe, which surveyed almost 2,000 scholars for what has been called the “Real-Time REF Review”.

The review is likely to shape an ongoing review of the REF which is currently being chaired by Sir Peter Gluckman, the former chief scientist of New Zealand.

“There was disappointment that, while the intention of the Stern review and rhetoric from the funding bodies following the review of REF 2014 had been to reduce the burden, the perception was that this had not materialised in practice,” concludes the Rand report.

Institutional leaders believed that “changes to the rules designed to reduce burden had just shifted it,” it continues, adding that many believed “the inclusion of all staff had shifted the focus from selecting individuals to collating a larger pool of outputs.”

University leaders also suggested that “the burden [of the REF] has shifted from academics to those managing the exercise”, with the “increased complexity around ‘significant responsibility for research’” and “the flexibility in the number of outputs per person” necessitating the hiring of extra professional services staff to manage the process.

Criticising the “overly bureaucratic” nature of the REF, some university leaders “argued that the burden increased with each exercise, as the rules evolved and additional measures were added which required collecting, collating and auditing additional information”.

“They stated that the changes to the rules designed to reduce burden had just shifted it,” the report concludes.

Despite criticism of the increased administrative burden created by the REF some institutional leaders did commend other aspects of the exercise.

One institutional leader described the REF as a “lifeline” for specific topic areas that lack dual funding systems, and that the “funding that had been received from the REF was crucial from a sustainability perspective”.

A spokesman for the REF, which is run by Research England, said that “changes to staff and output submission guidelines were identified as positive developments by the majority of respondents” but were also “noted as increasing the burden”.

“Taken together, these changes were seen to have met the aims identified in the Stern review to improve the REF’s impact on career choices, progression and morale. As the report notes, an inclusive approach to staff submission was seen to have reduced the emotional burden of the exercise,” he said.

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