Three-D Issue 18: The REF is coming

Peter Golding
Northumbria University

It is spring and a young academic’s fancy lightly turns to thoughts of the REF.  Whether it should or it shouldn’t many academics are very much focused on the assessment of research to take place in 2014, the submission deadline for which is November 29th 2013. Across the land universities are measuring and test-running people’s research outputs, arming themselves on the latest means of demonstrating impact, and poring over the entrails of HESA statistics to work out how to get their research student and income ducks all in a row.

For staff in our fields this is often especially problematic given the uneasy fit between their departmental location and disciplinary affiliations with the sub-panel structure of the REF.  After much consultation and tweaking the Funding Council published the final definitive version of the panel criteria and working methods at the end of January. These should be read with care (you will find them online). For those still waging the last RAE war it may be especially useful to read the sections on double weighting, on co-authorship, and of course on impact.  Colleagues whose work is considered for submission should certainly not assume that those responsible for submissions in their university know all there is to know about REF guidelines and procedures, and there is enough that has changed since last time to make it well worthwhile for all staff to read the guidelines with care.

Also recent on the REF front is the call to universities to declare whether and where they might be making ‘multiple submissions’. This means where they might decide to submit two ‘units of assessment’ to the same sub-panel.  Given the reduction in the number of assessing panels this time, and their wider scope across disciplinary areas, many had assumed this would be bound to grow compared to 2008.  On the other hand the Funding Council are keen to keep the number of multiple submissions to a minimum, even if this means (with no penalty attached) that single submissions might make clear that they embrace two or more discrete areas of activity. Universities will need to give this some thought, as the guiding principle is to allow them to present their research in its best light as matches their organisational practice. Artificially mixing two areas of activity on the false presumption that this is the best way to play the REF game, when they are patently distinct, may be to nobody’s advantage.  The window for declaring an intention to make a multiple submission is from March 1st to December 7th 2012, and HEFCE will respond to such requests at three points in this period as submissions are made.

Another deadline for colleagues to keep an eye on is the July 31st cut off for universities to submit their Code of Practice on the selection of staff for the REF.  These must be approved for an institution to be allowed to submit. Universities have been given an option to submit their drafts early, by the end of April, though this would not confer an advantage in that they would not be allowed a second bite of the cherry using this early submission as a quasi consultation. This is an area of considerable importance and the Funding Council have provided a good deal of guidance, and training materials (see http://www.ecu.ac.uk/our-projects/REF).  Consultation with staff is itself looked for as good practice and you will want to make sure you are involved in this process.

Bruce Brown, who chairs Panel D in the REF, which includes many of the areas in our field (though not all), will be a speaker at the 2013 MeCCSA conference in Ulster. But before then there is much to read and discuss as we move inexorably towards the various deadlines. The operative word is ‘lightly’, but the REF looms large in all our worlds, for better or for worse, and this is a year of careful preparation and intelligence gathering. MeCCSA will continue to keep a close eye on REF preparations and inform members as work progresses.

Posted by Einar Thorsen