REF non-submission may have consequences, Leicester warns

University denies reneging on promise not to penalise staff over issue

August 8, 2013

Source: Alamy

On my honour: academics fear that, contrary to an agreed principle, staying out of the REF may harm a career

Fears that academics who are not submitted to the research excellence framework will be penalised by their institutions have been heightened by an alleged U-turn at the University of Leicester.

A memo sent to Leicester staff on 10 June by the institution’s senior pro vice-chancellor, Mark Thompson, says that the university stands by its previously agreed “general principle” that non-submission to the REF “will not, of itself, mean that there will be negative career repercussions for that person”.

But it goes on to state that non-submission is “clearly an important performance indicator” relevant to Leicester’s need, “for both financial and qualitative reasons”, to “reduce to a minimum the number of colleagues who are on teaching and research contracts but are not funded to do research”.

For this reason, it says, the position of all staff eligible for the REF but not submitted will be reviewed. Those who cannot demonstrate extenuating circumstances will have two options. Where a vacancy exists and they can demonstrate “teaching excellence”, they will be able to transfer to a teaching-only contract. Alternatively, they may continue on a teaching and research contract subject to meeting “realistic” performance targets within a year.

If they fail to do so, “the normal consequence would be dismissal on the ground of unsatisfactory performance”.

Times Higher Education understands that many Leicester academics have interpreted these remarks as a renunciation of the university’s promise that non-submission would not have “negative career repercussions”. One senior academic said he believed that Leicester’s senior managers had genuinely intended to reassure non-submitted staff, but had undermined their efforts with “stupid sabre-rattling”.

“They were trying to articulate that there isn’t an automatic link between non-inclusion and the list of draconian outcomes they set out, but nobody is reading it that way and everything else the memo says gives the impression you should ignore that sentence. It has wound everybody up beyond measure.”

He was frustrated by the memo’s tone because he believed Leicester’s approach to the REF was “relatively sensitive and soft touch” compared with other institutions.

Julie Cooper, regional support official for the University and College Union, said the UCU disagreed with “the use of the REF as a performance management tool” and was consulting members after a meeting with the university.

“There are many reasons why academics are not included in the REF and research is not the only work they do, [so non-submission is] not an accurate indicator of an individual’s ability to do their job,” she said.

The memo suggests that academics would be spared repercussions if, among other reasons, the number of individuals submitted is “constrained” by the volume of case studies their department intends to enter to demonstrate research impact.

Institutions must submit one case study for every 10 scholars entered.

Maria Nedeva, professor of science and innovation dynamics and policy at Manchester Business School, said the tactic of deciding how many academics to submit based on impact case study numbers was “rife”.

She said decisions on REF submissions were “an organisational game” that “has little to do with the excellence of individual academics” and typically favoured mainstream research.

“Allowing selection to affect academics’ careers means that the university and, indirectly, the UK is forgoing many progressive research lines,” she said.

A Leicester spokesman denied that it had altered its “consistent and transparent” approach to REF submission and said objections to the memo were based on “selective reading”.

The memo “highlights reasons why individuals might be retained on a teaching and research contract or a teaching-dominant contract – but states quite clearly the reasons are not exhaustive and that numerous individual factors will be taken into account”, he said. “In many instances, it would be desirable for individuals to continue on teaching and research contracts.” Those on teaching-only contracts retained “career advancement opportunities”, including professorships.

After a “productive” meeting, Leicester and the UCU hoped to develop “a joint statement on our agreed approach”, he added.

The spokesman also denied that constraining the number of academics submitted based on the volume of impact case studies amounted to game-playing: “All universities will seek to optimise their outcomes. There is no intention to contravene anything.”

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Reader's comments (2)

Yes, it is worrying given that REF is an assessment of groups not individuals. It raises important ethical issues about precisely *who* is being approached to assess individual academics prior to submission. For example, how many external assessors were used in the selection process at Leicester? Was it three (as is normal in journal review) or just one (as I understand is often the case with these in-house mock REF exercises)? If there is just one assessor, then who chooses them? The HoD? What checks and balances are in place to ensure that an HoD doesn't choose a mate who they know will knife certain people or groups with the department that HoD is trying to get rid of? What happens if the HoD's favourites all get good scores and then, after submission, rather than getting the inflated 3* or 4* that HoD's mate gave them, only 25% of the group come away with that score? Will senior management then randomly select 75% of the submitted group and put them in the performance management regime too? Surely some in that group will have been just as much of a 'let down' as those who were never submitted in the first place? Why should they be spared the threats?
The article describes a very poor environment to do research and disseminate the knowledge thus produced; including the means for producing new knowledge. Research performance judgments require expertise and dialogue. Has this been forgotten in many UK universities?