The extent to which the next research excellence framework (REF) should focus on overall university performance has emerged as a key battleground between the Russell Group of research-intensive institutions and other parts of the sector.
In its submission to a review of the REF due to report this summer, the Russell Group has called for “more emphasis” on “critical mass at the institutional level”, which some fear could cement the position of universities that already do well overall in the assessment.
But the University Alliance, whose members receive less money from the exercise, warned in its submission that “aggregation of assessment at institutional level would destroy dynamism and works against the principle of funding excellence” wherever it was found.
Lord Stern, the president of the British Academy, is leading the review into the REF that will look at how bureaucracy can be cut and if the pressures of the assessment prevent novel research.
The review has drawn criticism from younger universities for including only one non-Russell Group academic or vice-chancellor on its nine-strong panel. Asked why, Lord Stern told told Times Higher Education last December that “outstanding people are necessary to recognise excellence”.
The review’s call for evidence asks whether there would be “advantages in reporting on some dimensions of the REF (e.g. impact and/or environment) at a more aggregate or institutional level”.
At the moment, each subject (known as a unit of assessment) in each university gets its own individual score on quality, the impact its research has made on wider society, and on “environmental” factors such as equality and diversity. However, these can be aggregated up to university level.
The Russell Group response argues that the REF, the results of which help decide the distribution of more than £1 billion annually, should “recognise and reward the very highest levels of excellence in research and should avoid driving growth in lower quality research”.
“It should also recognise the importance of higher concentrations of research excellence, critical mass and multidisciplinarity.”
But the University Alliance argues that awarding funding on the basis of what it calls “size and historic funding capture” brings “diminishing returns”.
James Wilsdon, professor of research policy at the University of Sheffield, said that many in the sector would be “instinctively sympathetic” to looking at performance at a more institutional level “as a route to simplifying and reducing the burden of the exercise”. But he said that the University Alliance’s concerns were also “important”.
Professor Wilsdon said that he saw some sense in assessing areas such as equality, diversity and career progression on an institutional basis because many universities already had unified policies in these areas.
But he raised questions over whether this would be possible for research quality, what is known as the “outputs” part of the REF.
“There are already concerns that sometimes panel members aren’t sufficiently expert. To command confidence in the process, you need some way of demonstrating that outputs are being assessed by someone who is appropriately qualified,” he said.
The tensions around the REF's focus on institutional performance have surfaced just as a major piece of work published this month by the Leadership Foundation reveals that issues of status and “prestige” could be preventing universities from different parts of the sector working together effectively.
Ourania Filippakou, senior lecturer in education at the University of Hull, and Ted Tapper, a research professor at the Oxford Centre for Higher Education Policy Studies, told THE that the jockeying between different mission groups over the future of the REF showed “a clear fracturing of the direction of future higher education policy”.
“It helps to perpetuate what many would regard as an increasingly fragmented, or even perhaps negative, image of the sector – one that is organised to perpetuate internally different interests rather than one that works to transcend institutional advantage by attempting to determine what is in the interests of the sector as a whole,” they said.
However, the mission groups nonetheless agreed on the basic outline of the REF, they pointed out.