Stern’s review of the REF: what will it mean for academics?

Some see changes as making it more attractive to hire younger researchers – but there could be new opportunities to game the system

August 11, 2016
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The research excellence framework, the UK’s huge periodic review of research quality and impact that helps decide the allocation of more than £1 billion of funding a year, has come to loom over almost every aspect of university life.

Departments seem to have increased salaries to get better REF results. Concerns often emerge that academics not selected for inclusion in the REF will suffer negative career consequences. Data also suggest that scholars may even have turned away from books in favour of journal articles because they are more “REFable”.

So changes to the REF amount to a shift in the entire economy of academia in the UK – with winners and losers assured.

That is why the release of Building on Success and Learning from Experience, the review of the REF chaired by Lord Stern, president of the British Academy, will be pored over very closely.

Many observers have welcomed the review as a thoughtful, sympathetic response to the pressures, stresses and unintended consequences caused by the current system, with one commentator suggesting it could herald a move towards a “kinder, gentler REF”. But they are also mulling over how its 12 recommendations will play out in practice.  

Perhaps the most important recommendation in the report is to end so-called research portability: the ability of academics to take work carried out at a previous university and include it in the REF submission of a new institution.

This has been blamed for the rise of a costly “transfer market” in academics before the REF deadline, where universities attempt to poach top scholars, and their previous publications, to boost their score.

To counter this “short-termism” and “rent-seeking” by academics, work should be “submitted only by the institution where the output was demonstrably generated”, the report recommends.

At a stroke, academics with a string of prestigious publications to their name could have their bargaining power when moving jobs seriously downgraded. “If no institution can hire on the basis of an existing output, then the game is entirely changed for everyone and people will find employment based on future potential,” says Martin Paul Eve, professor of literature, technology and publishing at Birkbeck, University of London.

Academics late in their career, with several big papers to their name, would no longer be able to say to universities “you can buy my contributions”, adds Gianni De Fraja, a professor of economics at the University of Nottingham and co-author of a recent study that found a link between high salaries and good departmental REF scores.

“It could be something of a level playing field” between early career and more senior researchers, thinks Richard Watermeyer, director of research at the University of Bath’s department of education.

But if an end to research portability shuts down one type of “gaming” – the pre-REF deadline “transfer market” – it could open the door to other ways to sneak around the rules.

The review says that “if individuals transfer between institutions (including from overseas) during the REF period, their works should be allocated to the HEI [higher education institution] where they were based when the work was accepted for publication”.

Watermeyer thinks that the new rules could open the door to academics delaying publication so as to be able to extract a lucrative job offer in exchange for releasing their results at a new university. “There’s a really big issue here,” he says.

If academics say “hang on, I’m going to hold off because I have got a powder keg of results”, this would exacerbate the already often long delays in academic publishing, he warns.

If work has to be done at a university for that institution to take credit for it in the REF, managers may also have to think much harder about when to appoint staff – and how to bed them in – so as to maximise their publications during the REF cycle, thinks Watermeyer.

The downside of this, he points out, could be a very narrow recruitment window around the REF, which would make it difficult for those finishing their PhDs in the middle of a REF cycle to find a first job.

But another upshot of the end of research portability is that the REF could become less about assessing individuals, and more about rating departments. “Of course institutions are made up of individuals, but a high-quality research environment is characterised by diversity, with the whole being much more than the sum of its diverse parts,” says Ottoline Leyser, director and professor of plant development at the Sainsbury Laboratory, University of Cambridge.

“This is what the REF should assess. A REF remodelled according to the Stern recommendations will support this more holistic assessment, but only if we let it,” she says.

Which universities will win and lose?

As well as changing the balance of power between junior and senior academics, the Stern review could also result in winners and losers among universities.

Although vice-chancellors will have to wait until at least 2021 to see how the new system plays out in practice, one of the most striking aspects of the report is how many recommendations it seems to take from the University of Cambridge, which proposed a “radical” shake-up of the exercise in its submission to the review panel.

At the moment, departments can select who they want to enter, and make a trade-off between their score and the number of academics submitted, depending on how selective they are. Critics argue that this makes the REF results a poor reflection of a department’s true quality.

Cambridge proposed that all staff, even those on teaching-only contracts, be submitted to the exercise.

Stern has not quite gone this far, but has still recommended that all research staff be entered. He hopes that this will cut down the bureaucracy involved in deciding who to enter, and prevent researchers’ careers and morale from being damaged by non-selection for the REF.

But, points out Richard Watermeyer, director of research at the University of Bath’s department of education, Cambridge has least to lose from such a system because it already submits about 95 per cent of its scholars, the highest in the UK.

Other universities that take a much more selective approach could face tumbling down the REF quality table if they are forced to include all their researchers.

Watermeyer thinks that Cambridge “got its way” in the review, which he said did not surprise him “one iota”.

Could people be forced on to teaching-only contracts?

With Stern’s recommendation that all research staff be submitted to the REF, some fear that this will mean that universities shunt low performers on to teaching-only contracts in order to boost their scores.

“There is a risk of the imposition of more teaching-only contracts,” says Martin Paul Eve, professor of literature, technology and publishing at Birkbeck, University of London. “However, if institutions want to be awarded any substantial amount of [quality-related funding, based on the REF results], they cannot slide too far in this direction.”

Part of the logic of submitting all researchers to the REF is that it removes the stress and hassle of deciding who is selected.

The report also proposes an average of two outputs submitted per researcher, with the option for some to submit up to six, and others less, “potentially none”. But this raises the prospect that submitting nothing would be just as stigmatising as not being selected at all.

But some are more optimistic.

“My view is that if, as the Stern review proposes, outputs are genuinely uncoupled from individuals, then the idea of being ‘zero submitted’ is meaningless,” says Ottoline Leyser, director and professor of plant development at the Sainsbury Laboratory, University of Cambridge.

“It is the university that is being assessed, not its individual researchers."


Print headline: Scholars get to grips with the Stern review

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