Three-D Issue 27: Research Excellence Framework update

While a new acronym by name of TEF has started to haunt the nightmares of many an academic we are still keeping a wary eye on the next Research Excellence Framework (REF). With the publication of Lord Stern’s review of the REF in July many let out a large sigh of relief. His recommendations were mainly welcomed, not least the undiluted endorsement of peer review as the basis of assessment. Other main recommendations included:

  • All research active staff to be returned
  • Outputs to be at Unit of Assessment level, meaning a requirement of the number of staff returned times two, but with any number between 0 and six for any individual
  • Outputs cannot be portable – meaning outputs are claimed by the institution the author was at when published, even if they’ve moved since
  • Impact and environment will be assessed more at institutional level
  • Impact should be widely interpreted well beyond socio-economic impact.

While broadly welcomed, the downside in some of the recommendations has been much discussed. For example returning all staff is a change long mooted, but will it simply lead to institutions forcing some staff on to teaching only contracts? Similarly, the non-portability of outputs is designed to stop the transfer market and games-playing endemic in past REF’S, but what will this mean for the employment prospects of early career researchers, or indeed anybody, who would arrive at their new university with no publications available for its REF submission? Will the change to averaging outputs across a UoA actually lead to a policy of, as one commentator has described it, ‘heroes and zeroes’, some staff being supported and rewarded for submitting six items so that others can be hidden in the shadows with few or none? Will the institutional level assessment of impact and environment decant some control away from departments up towards central university managements? This has all yet to be seen, and MeCCSA will be watching closely to see how these recommendations are implemented in universities.

Of course, these were just recommendations, and we all waited with bated breath for Government response. It’s just possible REF may not have been at the top of their agenda over the summer. But in October came a letter from the Minister for Universities, Jo Jonson, which welcomed the report, endorsed the principle of dual support (meaning money through the Funding Councils and REF to all universities as well as competitive funding from RCUK and the like), and seemed to accept the Report’s recommendations.

Next step was a consultation. Following Jonson’s letter HEFCE announced they would “develop proposals on how to implement Lord Stern’s recommendations in the next REF” and said that they would “launch a consultation with the sector on these proposals in November 2016. Further engagement with the sector, including consultation events, will be undertaken during the consultation period.” In fact it was December before the Consultation was published. Responses (on the format and timetable for what is now referred to as REF 2021) have to be returned by March 17th, and MeCCSA will of course be responding.

Neither the Stern report nor HEFCE have said a word about other various aspects of REF, including one issue that MeCCSA drew attention to in its earlier submission, namely the composition of the assessment panels dealing with our field. The subject overview report published after the 2014 REF, referring to the forced integration of information and library science with cultural, communication and media studies, had itself suggested that “… having argued strenuously many years ago for the separation of fields whose common attachment to terms like communications and information masks substantive differences of intellectual origins, approach, and interest (such that in many HEIs they would be found not just in different departments but in different faculties or schools), the consolidation of these fields into a single UOA poses continuing difficulties…”. The recent Consultation does minimally pick this up in referring to correspondence on “film and media studies”.

Consultation with subject associations was a crucial feature of the last REF and is likely to be so again. MeCCSA will keep members informed of all developments and will be keeping a very close eye on them to ensure we can, as far as possible, a fair and proper assessment of the fields of research we cover. Members will be consulted on matters to be raised in response to the current Consultation.

The Stern Review report is available at https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/541338/ind-16-9-ref-stern-review.pdf

The consultation document is at http://www.hefce.ac.uk/pubs/year/2016/201636/

Posted by Einar Thorsen