Imperial considers REF trade-off between quality and quantity

Minutes suggest the pros and cons of strategies for submission

October 17, 2013

Rare insight into the trade-offs universities are making when submitting to the research excellence framework has been revealed.

Minutes from a meeting of Imperial College London’s council state that to achieve the best possible result in the 2008 research assessment exercise, the college would have needed to sacrifice £4 million a year in funding and submit 348 fewer staff.

A paper on the institution’s preparations for its 2014 REF submissions, presented on 15 February by Stephen Richardson, Imperial’s deputy rector, states that the college, like all institutions, is free to determine which of its academic staff it wishes to submit.

“Funding is a multiplier of quality and volume (staff numbers submitted) and thus there is trade-off to be made between quality and staff volume,” it reads.

“For information, in RAE2008, for the College to have had the highest proportion of submitted activity assessed as 4*, then, other things being equal, it would need to have submitted 348 fewer” full-time equivalent staff. It adds that this would have cost the institution around £4 million a year in terms of its Higher Education Funding Council for England grant.

This cut would have amounted to 4 per cent of the college’s Hefce research grant for 2011-12 (£96 million) and less than 1 per cent of Imperial’s overall research income for that year of £410 million.

Asked whether a trade-off was being considered in forming Imperial’s REF strategy, a spokesman for the university said: “Given the anticipated funding model for REF 2014, all institutions will be working towards maximising 4* and 3* submissions.”

He added: “A calculation of this kind could only be made when the REF quality profiles are known.”

Fears of selectivity in the REF have been heightened by examples of the treatment meted out to academics who are not being submitted, highlighted by Times Higher Education in recent weeks. This has included transfer to teaching-only contracts and disciplinary procedures.

Stefano Fella, national industrial relations official at the University and College Union, said that the Imperial council minutes seemed to illustrate the kind of thinking that was going on with regard to maximising REF performance.

“We would reiterate that institutions need to acknowledge this gaming aspect and keep decisions on REF submissions entirely separate from decisions regarding [staff] terms and conditions and career development,” he said.

Meanwhile, speaking at a lunchtime lecture on 3 October, Michael Arthur, the new provost of University College London, said that the “grade-point average” of the institution’s submissions was set to “exceed” 3* in quality.

A spokesman for UCL’s vice-provost for research, David Price, added that the institution planned to submit “comfortably over 90 per cent” of REF-eligible staff.

“In particular, our rate for eligible early career researchers will be more than 95 per cent,” he said.

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