To sleep, perchance to dream (of something other than the REF)

A study of UK academics has found that research policy is causing restless nights

July 19, 2012

"I remember thinking when I started as a research assistant that this was my dream job. Now sometimes it seems more like a nightmare - if only I could sleep."

This is the view of a research fellow at a post-1992 institution, one of the 71 academics who participated in a study on the impact of recent developments in policy on research and researchers in higher education.

The findings, based on email interviews with academics working across the UK, reveal widespread anxiety about increased pressure and workloads, which respondents attribute primarily to universities' determination to maximise their performance in the upcoming 2014 research excellence framework.

Barbara Read, a senior lecturer in education at the University of Roehampton and one of the co-authors of the report, said the pressure is felt particularly keenly by female respondents and those at pre-1992 universities.

But a shortage of time for conducting research is a bugbear of most respondents regardless of gender or affiliation.

Presenting the findings last week at an event hosted by the Society for Research into Higher Education, the project's funder, Dr Read quoted a female senior research fellow at a pre-1992 institution, who says: "Research has become [something] private, [carried out] in my own time, paid for by me: very tiring, stressful and depressing."

A female reader at a pre-1992 university adds: "If anyone else shows me a list of the top 4* journals in the belief that I will go away and miraculously get a 4* paper for the REF I will scream!"

Some respondents envisage leaving either their institution or the academy altogether, or moving voluntarily on to teaching-only contracts.

Respondents also express concerns about the increased tensions that can arise when research stars are perceived to be favoured with departmental resources.

However, most say that their immediate research environment has become more collaborative - possibly as a result of the perception that departments are now judged as collectives by the REF and its recent predecessors.

A handful of respondents welcome the modern emphasis on publication. One says: "In 1973, if you published you were seen as selfish and ambitious: especially negative things to be said about a woman. [Now] anyone who can publish is seen as a good egg and a contributor to the overall effort."

According to Carole Leathwood, professor of education at London Metropolitan University and another co-author of the report, respondents worry that increased concentration of funding could lead to a narrowing of research agendas and the exclusion of early career academics and radical ideas by an "old boys' club" of established senior researchers.

"We all want to do excellent research but there isn't a level playing field in terms of who has power to define what that is: that kind of comment came up again and again," Professor Leathwood said.

Respondents also fear that the impact agenda could distort research priorities. However, Professor Leathwood said this was the recent trend in research policy that received the most support.

paul.jump@tsleducation.com.

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