UCU explores best way to boycott 'divisive' REF

Members say new funding system could bring heavier workloads and job cuts. John Morgan writes

December 22, 2011

The University and College Union is considering how to stage a boycott of the research excellence framework, after members called it "divisive" and warned of its "injurious" impact on workloads.

In the summer, members at the union's sector conference passed a motion to boycott the REF, the system for allocating around £1.6 billion in annual research funding due to be enacted in 2014.

Now Michael MacNeil, head of higher education for the UCU - which has around 50,000 academic members in the sector - has written to branches to say that the union is "exploring the best way to implement the higher education sector conference policy on boycotting the REF".

He adds: "Officials have been working with some branches to consider how to take forward this policy and it is likely that we will hold a briefing for branches and local associations early next year."

Don Braben, an honorary professor in the department of earth sciences at University College London and a critic of the REF, said he would "totally support" a boycott.

Professor Braben added that he had given lectures trying to persuade scientists to "not cooperate" with the exercise, which he believes would exacerbate the trend for academics to be judged not by the quality of their teaching but "by the number of citations they have in the highest-cited journals".

The Higher Education Funding Council for England, tasked by the government with implementing the REF, has said that the framework is intended to provide indicators to "benchmark quality against international standards" and to "reduce significantly the administrative burden on institutions" in comparison to the predecessor research assessment exercise.

The UCU conference motion said the union's higher education committee should "consider the most effective way for our members to withdraw from participation in the REF, a divisive exercise with injurious work intensification consequences for our members, most obviously through cutting the jobs filled by so-called underperforming staff".

A critique of the REF published online by Peter Wells, a lecturer in logistics and operations management at Cardiff Business School, also cites its "divisive" nature in turning staff deemed "non-active" into "second-rate citizens" given "higher teaching loads and more administrative work".

Dr Wells told THE that the boycott was "a laudable idea - not least because it would help open up the discussion about the REF".

However, he said there was "potentially a danger that the very people and institutions that suffer the most from the REF might equally be those that suffer under a boycott unless genuinely cohesive and mutually supportive action can be agreed".

Dr Wells said the "critique of the REF needs to focus on identification of its purpose, and whether it is fit for that purpose".

He also argued that the financial and other costs of the REF - including the growing submissions process "industry" - need to be "clearly exposed".

john.morgan@tsleducation.com.

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