REF survey eases fears of selective game-playing

Rise in staff submissions predicted despite tightened funding formula. Paul Jump reports

January 17, 2013

A predicted rise in the number of academics being put forward for the 2014 research excellence framework is likely to ease concerns that the removal of funding for 2*-rated research will lead to institutions being highly selective in who they submit.

According to the funding councils’ survey of submission intentions for the REF, published earlier this week, UK universities intend to enter 54,269 staff - a rise of 3.6 per cent on the number submitted to the 2008 research assessment exercise.

The largest increase - 10.6 per cent - is predicted for physical science and engineering, with numbers in the humanities and in life sciences declining slightly.

Final numbers will not be known until after the REF submission deadline in November.

But the survey, carried out to help panels recruit enough additional assessors to meet demand, appears to belie concerns that the removal of 2* (“internationally recognised”) research from the quality-related (QR) funding formula would prompt universities to submit only researchers with at least one 3*-rated paper.

This would yield an inaccurate perception that the UK’s research base has shrunk since 2008.

Some, such as Kevin Schurer, pro vice-chancellor for research and enterprise at the University of Leicester, have also expressed concerns that some universities that already receive little QR funding could be prompted to submit only their very top researchers in the hope of maximising their position in the league tables. Such action could create a false impression of their research prowess.

For this reason, Professor Schurer welcomed last week’s announcement by the Higher Education Statistics Agency that, unlike in 2008, it will publish data on the number of eligible staff in each unit of assessment within a week of the release of the REF results.

This would allow the compilers of league tables to introduce a weighting for the proportion of staff submitted, with highly selective institutions being penalised.

‘Inevitable’ narrowing

However, Myra Nimmo, pro vice-chancellor for research at Loughborough University, and Trevor McMillan, pro vice-chancellor for research at Lancaster University, both argued that the removal of funding for 2* research meant that higher selectivity remained “inevitable”.

Professor Nimmo added that the publication of the Hesa statistics should be accompanied by a warning that “many more staff than those returned are research-active”, but conceded that this would be a “difficult message to portray accurately to the public”.

Professor McMillan said that while a “valid” measure of “research intensity” was valuable, the Hesa statistics would be useful only for flagging up units of assessment that had been highly selective or inclusive.

“In the middle ground, the nature of the data will be such that much less sensible conclusions will be drawn and therefore league table compilers will avoid their use,” he said.

He also expressed a fear that Hesa’s decision to count only those with “research” in their contracts could prompt universities to “manipulate their research staff numbers by changing staff contracts”.

However, Professor Schurer said that changing academic contracts was “far from being a straightforward process and may not be completed successfully if hurried or not fully justified by factors other than the REF”.

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