UK HE bureaucracy ‘a bit of a monster’, says REF creator

Panel warns that action is needed to tackle excessive competition and casualisation if research careers are to remain attractive

November 26, 2020
Rama Thirunamachandran, the vice-chancellor of Canterbury Christ Church University
Rama Thirunamachandran, vice-chancellor of Canterbury Christ Church University

The vice-chancellor who oversaw the creation of the UK’s research excellence framework has admitted that bureaucracy has become a “bit of a monster” in higher education.

Rama Thirunamachandran, vice-chancellor of Canterbury Christ Church University, told Times Higher Education’s THE Live event that sector workloads were “high” and “had increased over the past decade or two because of some of the administrative and bureaucratic requirements imposed by regulators and external agencies”.

“We need to take a better look at the totality of regulation that universities are facing,” said Professor Thirunamachandran, who developed the 2008 research assessment exercise (RAE) – the forerunner of the REF – while he was director of research, innovation and skills at the Higher Education Funding Council for England.

“Having been on the regulation side, I now look back and think…we have created a bit of a monster here in terms of the amount of regulation,” reflected Professor Thirunamachandran on the “considerable bureaucracy” that researchers and university leaders now faced.

The initial research assessment exercise had been introduced for good reasons in the 1980s when research was a “residual activity” for most academics who generally concentrated on teaching, which had led to concerns that research funding would not provide the taxpayer with value for money if academics were not required to account for their activities, he explained.

“But the pendulum has perhaps swung too much the wrong way,” he added of the current oversight versus academic autonomy balance.

Professor Thirunamachandran also called on research-intensive universities, in particular, to limit their use of fixed-term research contracts by creating more permanent positions for researchers.

“Large research-intensive universities now have large pools of research coming from QR [quality-related research funds], government, the Wellcome Trust, industry and other sources – that should allow particular research groups to employ staff on open-ended contracts, which deals with issues of casualisation by [helping people to] secure mortgages and have a family life,” he said.

Professor Thirunamachandran, who was appointed head of Canterbury Christ Church in 2013, having left Hefce for academia in 2008, also suggested that the recent push towards marketisation had been a “double-edged sword” for higher education.

“Those who believe in markets – and I generally support markets – have to be careful in what we create and, having been in the system for a very long time and coming to the end of my career, I see the current market environment is creating bad incentives for the system as a whole – be it teaching, research or universities.”

“It is becoming counterproductive and possibly toxic for both staff and students,” said Professor Thirunamachandran.

The comments came in a panel discussion that examined whether casualisation, short-term research funding and competition were making research careers increasingly unattractive.

Daniel Akinbosede, doctoral tutor in biochemistry at the University of Sussex, also told the event that the financial pressures caused by marketisation created a “vacuum” in place of research leadership.

“It limits the ability of researchers in managerial positions to provide the mentoring and support…and in that vacuum of mentoring and support you get early career researchers left out in the cold,” he argued.

This lack of leadership meant junior researchers were “unable to realise what transferable skills they have – they become stuck in this rut of thinking that academia is the only place in which they can progress, but…there are only so many [academic positions] that can be funded,” said Mr Akinbosede, who concluded that “the way in which universities are funded is a key issue and a root cause” of despondency among many early career academics.

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Reader's comments (5)

Yes the bureaucracy is out of control in UK Univesities and it needs to be culled !! It is expensive, unnecessary and actually harms the productivity of the frontline academics that spend too much of their time filling in silly forms and reports, attending ridiculously long meetings that achieve next to nothing and being forced to change things that are working quite well to a new system that do not work well. Then to top it all some of senior managers that waste academics time are paid more than the academics and then have the cheek to appoint loads of assistant managers to do the jobs the managers should be doing themselves. All this means higher fees for students and lower salaries for the academics. Bloated administration in UK Universities can be reduced if cull some of the agencies that create all this work such as the Research Excellence Framework, Teaching Excellence Framework, Office for Students and some of the other regulatory things that have cropped up like Athena Swan who give out silly awards (bronze, silver, gold) in return for fees and a huge amount of paperwork from the Universities.
Professor in the social sciences here. I wouldn't choose this career path again. If I had known 10 years ago when I finished my PhD or 15 years ago after finishing my master's degree how academia would develop, I would have run in the other direction as fast as possible. Back then I was excited to do great research and teach that knowledge and passion to junior scholars. Nowadays the reality looks more like research can only be published if it is politically uncontroversial or critical in the right direction. No point anymore in trying to find the truth. Awards are given out for the best activism, not science. Bureaucracy is trying to maintain and even promote competition and marketisation of universities (they call it "the sector" like yet another industry branch) and squeeze more money out of the market for education. Students rightly feel milked by universities. Academic staff are in the middle and a) have less and less time for research, b) get less recognition for science and more for activism ("impact"), c) have to deal with students' frustration and decreasing skill sets because the universities keep fishing lower in the pool of potential students, and d) are told by bureaucrats that this is all normal and we shouldn't expect too much because broad higher education is good for society. This has effectively led to lower quality science and teaching and lower job satisfaction. I wouldn't do this again. If I had wanted an industry job where I depend on clueless customers and bosses, I would have taken one in the first place.
@SpammerSlammer "If I had wanted an industry job where I depend on clueless customers and bosses, I would have taken one in the first place." I moved from industry into academia later in life and I have to say that you may be surprised to hear that managers and customers in industry overall were much less clueless and inept than any of those "managers" or "leaders" I have come across at UK universities. It was shocking for me to realise how bad universities are run in the UK. I nightmarish combination of a Stalinesque command and control bureaucracy and a performance management system for academics that makes a sales job feel like a walk in the park. I still have a greater degree of freedom and independence than I had in industry, but just about. UK HE is at a crossroads now and reached a tipping point for me. The rewards and advantages (for me: intellectual and professional freedom and independence) do not cancel out the disadvantages (e.g. much lower pay, hardly any perks, 24/7 on the job) of the job anymore. If they push it even further toward marketisation and meaningless metrics, I will be out.
OfS and UKRI have to take a long, hard look at the burden v accountability equation. I know they're trying, but if they start issuing consultations on burden reduction, setting up focus groups on it, commission analyses of sector views that require institutions to respond to yet more surveys, and send 6pm Friday 'action required' letters to support it all, it will be clear they've missed the point.
Can't believe people have only just woken up to the damage done by RAE and REF. It was evident over twenty years ago.