Let the REF games begin

Universities hoping to submit staff who have already left are going to have to work hard on maintaining goodwill, says Robert Dingwall

December 14, 2017
Holding all the cards
Source: iStock

Now that the definitive rules have been published for the 2021 research excellence framework, we can settle down to consider which actions will best favour the institutions that we belong to or advise. Winners develop strategies: losers complain about “gaming”.

Two particular changes from the 2014 rules stand out. One is the ability to return staff who are no longer employed by a university by reason of redundancy, retirement, death or departure from the sector. The other is the compromise on portability, whereby credit for outputs produced by people who switch institution during the assessment period are to be shared between their former and current institutions.

Some early career researchers have complained that the new rules will enable universities to make them redundant while keeping credit for their publications, removing the current incentive to create bridging funds to support them between fellowships – or, at least, to extend their employment beyond the census date. These complaints may be justified but we should look at them in the context of the similar challenges presented by retirement, death or career change. (The last also seems to cover emigration.)

In all cases, if universities want to return publications and impact from people who are no longer working for them, they are going to have to work quite hard at maintaining goodwill. Consider this. Journal articles will count only if they are deposited in university repositories within prescribed deadlines. Impact data will need to be collected over time, mostly by the individuals who carried out the research. To ensure compliance, universities will need to track people who have left their employment. If those people do not think that they were well treated before or after leaving, they have no reason to go along with these requirements. If compliance turns out to be burdensome, it is even less likely.

Some causes of disaffection are beyond universities’ control: European nationals forced out by Brexit are unlikely to feel much love for REF reporting. Other causes could be managed. Conversations with my contemporaries, for example, suggest that emeriti privileges are sometimes seen as an embarrassing relic of a more genteel era, a hit to the bottom line rather than a potential source of benefit. This may need to be reappraised if the contributions of emeriti have REF value. Indeed, universities may want to consider enlarging the range of honorary statuses available to demonstrate continuing connections with those who have formerly been employed on REF-eligible contracts.

A more creative approach to leavers may also be important in building war chests for the transfer market that traditionally reached fever pitch in the months leading up to the REF census date, by which universities were required to have recruited all the researchers that they wanted to submit. In his 2016 review of the REF, Lord Stern wanted to prevent “rent-seeking” behaviour by academics. This is just a pejorative way of saying that portability allowed talented individuals to be paid their market value and to resist bullying managements. Non-portability would remove these opportunities. However, it would also limit the operations of vice-chancellors in the transfer market. They want portability when this applies to other universities’ staff, but they don’t want it for their own.

Given the lack of consensus, the funding bodies have fudged the issue for 2021, while declaring that they still hope to see non-portability imposed for the following REF. By then, of course, the REF rules will have passed primarily into the hands of Research England, under the new overarching research funder, UK Research and Innovation. It is anybody’s guess how that body will handle the issue. Nevertheless, the run-up to 31 July 2020 will be the last opportunity to recruit staff who a university can be certain to be able to return in the round after 2021. They may have to share credit this time – but can hope for exclusive rights next time.

The great humorist Stephen Potter defined gamesmanship as the “art of winning games without actually cheating”. The REF is a high-stakes game and the penalties for cheating can be severe, both institutionally and individually. True gamers derive their advantage from the invisibility of their strategy and tactics – which is not to say that these are not seriously considered.

Robert Dingwall is a consulting sociologist.  

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