REF changes could have a bad impact on mental health

Universities must support those responsible for the impact case studies that will carry so much weight in the next research excellence framework, says Jonathan Grant

September 28, 2017
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In late 2013, I led a project evaluating how universities went about preparing the impact element of their submission to the 2014 research excellence framework. As was widely reported, we estimated that the monetised costs of preparing submissions across the sector was about £55 million. Less reported was our observation on the non-monetised costs: the workload, pressure and mental health burden put on those responsible for developing the case studies, on which most of the impact score depended.

I vividly remember facilitating a sombre focus group with about half a dozen academics from the same institution. They were all case study “leads” – the people whose impact was being reported and who were responsible for developing the case study. Emotions were shared and tears shed as the researchers explained the pressures they felt under – in terms of workload, but, just as importantly, in terms of the responsibility they felt to their colleagues. About one impact case study was required for every 10 full-time equivalents, meaning that, in effect, one person (or team) bore the responsibility and workload of nine others.

Last year’s Stern review of the REF acknowledged some of these issues in relation to the selection of staff and research outputs to be submitted, noting that such decisions “can generate problems with career choices, progression and morale”. Partly as a consequence, Stern recommended that all research-active staff should be submitted in future, and that outputs should be decoupled from individuals. The funding bodies’ recently published Initial Decisions on REF 2021 equivocated on these issues, mainly due to the complexity of implementation, but further consultation was promised.

At the same time as the next REF is being designed, it is increasingly being acknowledged that academics face a mental health crisis. While some ill-informed politicians may believe that academics have a cushy life with extended summer breaks, a recent report by former colleagues of mine at RAND Europe, produced for the Royal Society and Wellcome Trust, concluded that levels of work-related stress appear to be higher among university staff than among general working populations, being comparable to “high-risk” groups, such as healthcare workers. They also noted that academics appear not to be disclosing their mental health conditions, with only 6.2 per cent having done so, despite an estimated 37 per cent having a common disorder. As discussed in the report, such comparisons have to be treated with care, but the point is that the mental health of staff and students is an increasing concern for university leadership.

Which brings me back to impact. One of the surprise announcements in the Initial Decisions document was the increase of the impact weighting from 20 to 25 per cent of the total. I had expected the impact template, which describes how departments support impact generation, to be moved to the section on research environment; as it counted for a fifth of impact assessment in 2014, that would have been equivalent to increasing the weighting of impact to 25 per cent in 2021. The fact that both changes will be implemented means that, in a like-for-like sense, the weighting for impact case studies has nearly doubled, from 16 per cent in 2014 to 25 per cent in 2021.

I welcome the further incentive that this will provide for universities to consider how they contribute to society. But the move to unit-level submission of outputs (which will account for 60 per cent of 2021 scores – down from 65) means that the impact case studies will be the only individual element in 2021. Granted, the case studies are supposed to be about a body of work rather than individuals, but the lesson from 2014 is that individuals were held responsible for the case studies and there is nothing in the new rules to suggest that this will change. Therefore, given the increased weighting of impact, we can only expect such individuals to be put under even more pressure in 2021.

The only remedy is for universities, as they put in place processes for identifying and developing the case studies, to consider how they are going to support those individuals. If they don’t, the mental health statistics are only likely to get worse.

Jonathan Grant is professor of public policy at King’s College London and assistant principal for strategic initiatives and public policy.

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