UK funding councils rethink submission rules for REF 2021

‘Push-back’ against proposal to use contractual status to identify research-active academics

March 15, 2017
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The UK’s funding councils have stepped back from plans to require universities to submit all academics on research contracts to the next research excellence framework.

A key recommendation of Lord Stern’s review of REF 2014 was that all research-active staff should be submitted and the funding councils proposed in December to implement this by requiring universities to include all staff on research-only or teaching and research contracts in the 2021 exercise.

It was argued that this would give a more accurate picture of a university’s research strength than the previous REF, in which institutions were accused of “game-playing” in the selection of staff for submission. There were also claims that non-selection led to academics being “stigmatised”.

A consultation on the proposals is due to close on 17 March but the funding councils have already conceded that contractual status may not be the best way to identify research-active staff.

The funding councils have acknowledged that many universities, particularly those in Scotland, are required to use a model contract which includes both teaching and research duties, regardless of the work actually expected of the academic.

Instead, the funding councils are considering drawing up an “evidence-based definition” of what it means to be research active, leaving it to the universities and individual academics to agree upon who falls into which category.

In a blog, David Sweeney, the Higher Education Funding Council for England's director of research, education and knowledge exchange, writes that this will likely lead to “consistently very high submission rates in the research-intensive universities”, rather than “variations seen by some as game-playing”. In universities that focus on teaching and knowledge exchange, there might be “much lower submission rates reflecting that fewer staff are hired with a primary success criterion being world-leading research outputs”.

Under such a scheme, universities would be required to “develop and publish the process they used to establish agreement with their staff on their ‘research-active’ status”, he writes.

Dr Sweeney told Times Higher Education that the funding councils still intended that “100 per cent of research-active staff will be submitted”.

“The only question is how you define research-active staff, and we propose doing that from a contractual basis,” Dr Sweeney said. “That has received a good bit of a push-back, which I understand, so now we’re...floating something else,” Dr Sweeney said.

Dr Sweeney added that, if the consultation responses “suggest a better way” of identifying research-active academics, the funding councils were prepared to consider that also.

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