Is the REF still useful?

Block grants need to be divided up, but UK research quality does not depend on a regular national audit

September 2, 2021
Man inspecting a carrot as a metaphor for Is the REF still useful?
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Election strategist James Carville famously told workers on Bill Clinton’s 1992 presidential election campaign that when it came to what voters cared about, there was only one right answer: “It’s the economy, stupid.”

In the same year, the UK university sector underwent a historic change: the abolition of the binary divide between universities and polytechnics. This allowed the latter to compete for research funds, greatly elevating the stakes surrounding the research assessment exercise (RAE), conceived a few years previously as a transparent way to distribute research block grants. Ever since, when it came to giving early career academics advice about what would sway the votes of appointment and promotion committee members, there was only one answer: “It’s the RAE, stupid.”

Thirty years on, though, there are signs that things are changing – and not only in US politics, where culture and identity have long (ahem) trumped economics as drivers of voter preferences.

What is now known as the research excellence framework is no longer the only show in the academic town. As a marker of institutional prestige, it vies with its recently spawned siblings – the knowledge exchange and, much more visibly, the teaching excellence frameworks – as well as both national and international league tables (the latest iteration of the Times Higher Education World University Rankings is out today: see our news pages for details).

The REF itself is also at something of a crossroads, as our cover feature sets out, with a major international review under way even before the results of the latest exercise have been announced. Of course, agonising over the REF’s accuracy, fairness and purview is nothing new, but some observers foresee a revision even more significant than the controversial adoption of an impact measure in 2014. With funders increasingly focused on “team science” and a government opposed to bureaucracy and focused on innovation, might we see the abolition of the REF’s already reduced focus on individuals, peer review swapped for metrics and the impact element supersized?

Perhaps. But before any decisions are made, it is worth taking a step back and asking what the REF is for in the modern era.

Its funding purpose remains, but the government has shown itself extremely reluctant to raise the quality-related (QR) budget that the REF distributes; former universities and science minister Chris Skidmore saw it as a triumph when he succeeded in extracting a minor rise a couple of years ago. With most ministers much more inclined to allocate new funding to specific, announceable projects than to put it into a general fund over which universities have full discretion, it seems highly unlikely that much of the promised doubling of the research budget – if it ever materialises – will find its way into the QR stream. In financial terms, then, the REF stakes are in relative decline – although the bill (£250 million in 2014, according to the official estimate) is not.

University managers still value the REF’s capacity to semi-officially identify areas of research that it would make sense for their institution to expand or contract. But many other countries manage their universities effectively without any comparable exercise.

This brings us to the key issue of quality. Early RAEs are widely credited for boosting the UK’s research performance; administrators and politicians may fear that if the REF were abolished or underplayed, progress would start to unravel. After all, many UK institutions are already struggling to hold their ground in international rankings.

But that has more to do with other countries’ increased investments; no one seriously doubts the quality of UK research (and rankings are informed by more than just research, after all). Moreover, the modern academic world is very different from the one in which the RAE arose, replete with academics who had walked into a rapidly expanding sector during the 1960s and 1970s, often without so much as a PhD.

Competition for jobs is now such that the work ethic required for success is almost superhuman – and probably achievable only by those for whom hard graft is the habit of a lifetime. Successful candidates are not the sort to put their feet up once they are in the door – particularly as tenure in the UK was abolished shortly after the first RAE.

As one academic recently noted in THE, would-be academics have not only to publish well and extensively but also to win grants, do outreach, have impact and be good departmental citizens. We might also mention achieving top student satisfaction scores. Underperformance in any of those areas can be enough for an application to be rejected.

It’s everything now, stupid.

paul.jump@timeshighereducation.com

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Reader's comments (1)

"University managers still value the REF’s capacity to semi-officially identify areas of research that it would make sense for their institution to expand or contract." - I sincerely hope this isnt true. If you are going to decide your future based on what a panel might think about what did from upto 5 or 6 years ago, then god help us. The best institutions are looking ahead not backward and indeed the very best are creating those futures and not playing catch up.

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