Why throw in the towel?

Lars Fischer on why losing round one in the REF impact fight means it's time to get off the ropes and hit back

August 16, 2012

Among the many legitimate arguments put forward against the introduction of impact as a rubric in the research excellence framework, one of the foremost took issue with the fact that it categorically excluded what to many of us seems to be our most important impact by far - namely, the effect we have on our students.

Against this backdrop, attentive readers will have been struck by the fact that the guidance on submissions published last summer seemed to make a concession of sorts. It clarified that "other impacts within the higher education sector, including on teaching or students, are included where they extend significantly beyond the submitting HEI".

The criteria published by Panel D reinforced this clarification. The document lists, as possible examples of impact, "informing and influencing the form or the content of the education of any age group in any part of the world where they extend significantly beyond the submitting HEI", and "influencing the design and delivery of curriculum and syllabi in schools, other HEIs or other educational institutions where the impact extends significantly beyond the submitting HEI, for example through the widespread use of textbooks, primary sources or an IT resource in education".

This is obviously still a long way from any appropriate recognition of the impact we have on our own students, but it nevertheless seems better than nothing. Arguably, there is an avenue here that would allow us to smuggle at least some element of genuinely academic work through the impact gate.

Miserably as we may have lost the fight against impact in the first round, many of our colleagues on the sub-panels have evidently fought hard to provide us with a second opportunity to regain some of the lost ground.

This is surely a matter of crucial import. The impact agenda has made two streams of research funding, both quality-related and the funding available through the research councils, increasingly dependent on criteria of sexiness.

The sort of continuous and fundamental research of the rather less flashy kind that actually keeps disciplines alive thus becomes increasingly unfundable, putting entire disciplines at serious risk of collapse in the middle to long term.

Having lost the fight to get rid of the impact requirement as such, we should surely exploit this opportunity as best we can, not least given that the weighting of impact will, of course, increase in future REF rounds.

Would failure to take this opportunity not discredit our own earlier critique of the impact agenda and suggest that the concessions made were never really necessary in the first place?

Inevitably, the consequence will be that this opportunity will be lost for future rounds of the REF. Yet it appears that there is little appetite to respond proactively.

As secretary of a small subject association, I thought our body would be ideally placed to offer support to individual colleagues and/or institutions well placed to make the most of this opportunity and thus respond proactively to it.

On enquiry, all the Panel D subpanel heads in a joint response expressly encouraged our association to pursue this course of action.

Yet the association's committee almost unanimously rejected the suggestion that action should be taken in this direction, arguing that these concessions were likely to be little more than a trap.

Were the issue not so serious, the situation that seems to be developing would be almost comical.

Everything suggests that the Panel D subpanels are making a serious attempt to turn the REF into the least bad thing possible - yet pretty much everybody else up and down the land is wildly determined to out-Hefce the Higher Education Funding Council for England and turn the REF into the worst thing it possibly can be.

To be sure, we need to pick our fights, but I find it hard to see what could be more important than making the greatest possible use of this opportunity to grab back at least some of the ground lost to the impact agenda.

Lars Fischer is academic director of the Centre for the Study of Jewish-Christian Relations, Cambridge. He recently resigned as secretary of the British Association for Jewish Studies over differences within the committee regarding its REF policy.

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