UK REF environment statements at unit level ‘should be scrapped’

Narratives describing research in departments should be replaced by institution-level document, recommends funder-backed study

July 28, 2022

Discipline-level environment statements should be dropped from the next Research Excellence Framework in favour of university-level assessment only, an expert panel has recommended.

As part of the latest sector-wide evaluation of UK research, whose results were published in May, almost 2,000 unit-level statements detailing the outcomes, policies and investments of university departments or faculties were submitted to Research England.

Along with figures about research income, doctoral degree completions and an institution-level narrative, these statements accounted for 15 per cent of a university’s score in the 2021 REF, which will be used to allocate about £2 billion a year in funding.

But a report by a panel of UK and international academics commissioned by Research England and other British regional funding bodies has now recommended that the unit-level statements – some of which are up to 30 pages long, and must be reviewed by three to five panellists – should not be part of the next REF.

Instead, the assessment should rely on a more detailed version of the institution-level environment statements, according to the report published on 28 July, which has been “welcomed” by the UK’s four main funding bodies.

That change would reduce the administrative burden for universities and “reduce duplication” in preparing REF submissions, it says, reflecting complaints by the Russell Group of research-intensive universities, which has lobbied for the abolition of the ‘time-consuming” assessments.

However, others have opposed the scrapping of unit-level statements, arguing that research cultures and interactions differ between university departments to the extent that an institution-only statement would result in generalities rendering the exercise meaningless. It would also lower the importance of improving research culture in UK universities, in particular the conditions faced by early career researchers and precarious staff, some argue.

The panel piloted an assessment of the research environment based on institutional-level statements only and found there was “broad alignment observed between the outcomes from the pilot and the average unit-level environment outcomes”.

Chris Day, vice-chancellor of Newcastle University, who chaired the pilot panel, said that the initiative showed the “feasibility and real value of introducing institutional assessment”.

“Assessment at this level has much to offer universities…in reducing the workload involved in producing multiple unit statements, and in supporting a ‘coming together’ across an institution to identify, reflect on and develop the strategies and resources invested in research and delivering impact from it,” added Professor Day.

The report will feed into an international review of the REF, currently being led by New Zealand’s former chief scientist Sir Peter Gluckman, which is likely to inform arrangements for a future exercise.

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Reader's comments (2)

Removing the more detailed unit level statements will allow for more manipulation and hogwash. Of course the "expert" panel will recommend this. You might as well remove the need for an environment statement. This will allow even more game playing mark my words but of course who cares...? If cost is the problem then get rid of the REF altogether. If leaders had any vision and management skills the university information systems would already capture these things on a continous basis as these are critical for assessing progress against your own strategies. it shouldnt be somethign that you just do for the REF and in anycase It should not be a mad scramble to produce these reports towards the end of the REF cycle. If anything, one should make it even more detailed for example you should include staff surveys (just like you have the PRES) as a part of the REF evaluation and pay close attention to unit level feedback.
The REF "should be scrapped"* *...corrected that for you ;)