The new REF rules could end game-playing – but only if we let them

The 2021 research excellence framework could be more representative and humane than ever, but the devil will be in the implementation, says James Wilsdon

November 30, 2017
Miles Cole illustration (30 November 2017)
Source: Miles Cole

After three long years of reviews and consultations about the future of the UK’s research excellence framework (REF) – and with the census date for the 2021 exercise now only 32 months away – what many of us have been crying out for is certainty about how the new rules will apply. We also want those rules to be sensible, and informed by the evidence and concerns of the research community.

The latest flurry of decisions, announced last week, delivers on both fronts. Its core points – a requirement to submit all staff with “significant responsibility” for research; flexibility on the number of outputs each must submit, continued portability (for now) of outputs between institutions; and fewer impact case studies per researcher submitted than in 2014 – were widely anticipated. They strike a sensible balance between the principles laid out in the Stern review, the views of the sector and the funding bodies’ sense of what is workable.

A morbid footnote confirming that outputs from recently deceased colleagues could still be counted raised eyebrows on social media. I particularly enjoyed an effort by University of Leeds biologist Richard Bayliss to channel Rupert Brooke: If I should die, think only this of me; That there's some contribution to a research field; That is for ever REFable.

Gags about murderous PVCs aside, reactions across the community were broadly positive. The new rules clearly have the potential to reduce the burden of the REF on individuals (even if its management load remains substantial); to strengthen the emphasis on research quality over quantity; and to reward a more representative spread of excellence. As London School of Economics researcher Paul Kirby noted: “The sliding scale of outputs should, in principle, allow for greater recognition of diversity in research projects, methodological commitments, career stages, and impact and engagement activities.”

But a lot still hinges on how REF 2021 is implemented. First, universities should attempt a moratorium on game playing. This may seem like wishful thinking, but while the new rules do allow some scope for institutional brinkmanship, the requirement to submit all research-active staff (or to explain clearly why you aren’t doing so) removes the selectivity trump card played so frequently in 2014. There’s no doubt that some universities will still look for ways around this – by attempting to change the contractual status of staff, or prioritising research time for a few star performers who produce larger volumes of high-quality work. But the need to account for the process of staff selection, combined with the data requirements of the environment section of the REF, will quickly make such attempts transparent. Social media, the unions and the pages of Times Higher Education should do the rest.

At departmental level, the process of selecting which outputs are submitted, above the entry threshold of one per person, will no doubt create new pressures. But these can also be managed in a collegial and transparent way if institutions choose to do so. As University of Essex historian Matthew Grant observed on Twitter: “Some HEIs will aggressively game it and staff will suffer, but that's because some HEIs are run by total shits.” My hope is that alongside the performance dynamics of the REF itself, a parallel competitive process will develop over how sensibly (or otherwise) different universities implement the new framework.

A second priority is for government to maintain the value of the exercise. The UK research budget is now growing at its fastest rate since the financial crisis, with further announcements in last week’s Budget intended to nudge the country towards a target of spending 2.4 per cent of GDP on R&D. This is welcome, but there is still uncertainty about how the principle of funding “balance”, enshrined in the Higher Education and Research Act, will apply to all the new money.

As a sector, we have long emphasised the importance of the dual support system in sustaining a healthy research base. But the Russell Group has raised specific concerns about how much of the new challenge funding will be allocated in quality-related (QR) block grants. The REF is about much more than allocating QR, but it’s crucial that government ensures that the proportion of QR within the wider research budget is maintained. Its pledge in the industrial strategy, published on Monday, to increase QR by an unspecified amount is an encouraging sign.

Above all, if we’re to make the most of these new rules, we need to change the way we think about the REF. We need to see it less as a burden imposed on us by faceless managers and more as a task that we undertake together, as a sector, to renew a licence with taxpayers that brings almost £2 billion of vital support to research each year. Lord Stern and the funding bodies have taken us part of the way there; the rest is now down to us.

James Wilsdon is professor of research policy at the University of Sheffield and a programme leader in the ESRC/Hefce Centre for Global Higher Education.

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