REF reflections: are the 2021 rules fair?

December 7, 2017

One applauds the sentiments expressed by James Wilsdon in his article on the research excellence framework 2021 and I agree that the majority of recently announced decisions are sensible and were also widely anticipated ( “New REF rules could end game-playing – but only if we let them” , Opinion, 30 November).

In the area of research impact, however, they were not well signalled and could be perceived as not assisting with the submission of all staff with a significant responsibility for research. Surprisingly, the position remains the same as it was for the 2014 REF, that is that two impact case studies will be required for submissions of up to 15 full-time equivalent (FTE) staff, despite the estimated increase in the overall number of UK staff who will be submitted to REF 2021 being 60 per cent greater than in the previous REF. One further case study is then required per additional 15 FTE staff (rather than per 10 FTE staff in REF 2014), up to 105 FTE staff when the quantum rises to 50 FTE staff per case study, whereas it was maintained at 10 FTE staff per case study in the last REF.

A consequence of this new case study submission requirement is that the smallest submissions will require an impact case study per up to 7.5 FTE staff returned, whereas for large submissions, the returned staff per case study is markedly higher. For example, a submission of 250 staff will now necessitate just 11 impact case studies, or more than 22 FTE staff per case study. By comparison, a similar submission in REF 2014 would have required 26 impact case studies (or 9.6 FTE staff returned per case study). This change is perplexing as it puts a greater burden on smaller submissions to generate impact case studies from fewer staff with responsibility for research than that needed from large returns, which may come from research-intensive institutions that are in a position to submit all staff.

It is a welcome decision that very small submissions of fewer than five FTE staff may be excluded because of the potential burden, despite such cohorts containing people with significant research responsibility.

The major barrier to submissions of small staff returns is the impact case study requirement, as it often takes time to generate impact and, therefore, a more inclusive and arguably fairer decision would have been to exceptionally remove the need for them to submit impact case studies. These small submissions could have been assessed, for example, by assigning the 25 per cent case study allocation to an increased outputs score without significantly affecting the overall performance of institutions or specific subpanels.

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


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