REF needs clarity

March 16, 2017

The deadline for responses to the consultation on the next research excellence framework is 17 March, and it has created much debate.

Although the Higher Education Funding Council for England consultation contains 44 questions, Question 8, asking for comments on the proposed definition of research-active staff, has already proved the most challenging. Lord Stern recommended that all research-active staff be submitted to the REF 2021, which would be those who have significant responsibility for research, and there has been much discussion on the inadequacy of existing Higher Education Statistics Agency categories to identify these staff.

Interestingly, however, the consultation does not ask a question testing the validity of the statement that all research-active staff should be included, which is crucial to consider as the consultation does stress the importance of the assessment of research excellence, that also being a focus of the first REF. If all research-active staff were to be submitted using the current Hesa category “academic professional” with employment functions “teaching and research” and “research only”, this would result in a two to three times greater number of staff being submitted across the sector, and some institutions would be required to submit four or five times the number they did in REF 2014. Such a large increase in submitted staff will change the nature of the overall assessment from focusing on research excellence to one more assessing research power (ie, research quality multiplied by volume submitted), and therefore its validity as a methodology must be questioned. It will also not provide an overall continuity of approach with REF 2014, which, incidentally, is the first question in the consultation.

A major consequence of the above would be a reduction in the overall research excellence as assessed by the percentage of 3- and 4‑star quality overall across the sector in comparison with REF 2014, as there will be an increased quantity of 0- to 2‑star output submissions. A danger is that this situation will result in headlines after REF 2021 that suggest that there has been a decline in the excellence of UK research, which would be especially counterproductive in the post-Brexit period.

In addition, the rationale given for the Stern review’s recommendation to include all research-active staff to avoid stigmatising those not submitted would also not be realised as the proposal of decoupling staff from outputs with two outputs per full-time equivalent staff returned may well be adopted with either a 0 or 1 minimum number. Hence, arguably, the stigmatisation would move from whether individuals were submitted to how many of their outputs were included.

Nevertheless, if the political impetus around the Stern review and the consultation is that all research-active staff must be submitted, then it is not only that the current Hesa categorisation cannot be used but an approach that enables institutions to determine themselves who are research-active must be found and adopted. Such a method could be based on the code of practice for the selection of staff approved for each submitting institution approach used in REF 2014. However, a failure to deliver this is very likely to have serious negative implications not only for many individual institutions but also for the international reputation for excellence of UK research.

John Senior
Pro vice-chancellor (research and enterprise)
University of Hertfordshire

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