The results of the Research Excellent Framework were published just before Christmas, followed in the new year by the subject overview reports from the REF panels. Cultural, communication and media studies once again showed itself to be a strong and thriving research area with prowess in many fields and across the university sector, and with world leading research in every single one of the sixty-seven submissions.
Much of the work returned by MeCCSA members was submitted to sub-panel 36, which bore the literal but ungainly title of ‘Communication, Cultural and Media Studies, Library and Information Management ‘. This reflected the reduction by roughly half of the number of ‘units of assessment’ since the Research Assessment Exercise in 2008, and thus the combination of two rather disparate areas that in many universities would find themselves in different faculties, let alone departments. MeCCSA’s predecessor body was instrumental in persuading the funding bodies to separate these fields in previous exercises, so it was unfortunate to see them re-combined this time, and the sub-panel’s report makes clear that, although this did not affect the working or effectiveness of the assessment, they regard it as an issue to be re-assessed before any future exercise. Some work will also have gone to sub-panel 35 (performing arts) and indeed elsewhere.
The assessment not only found at least some world-leading research in every submission, but reported that over half the outputs it assessed were internationally excellent or world-leading. All kinds of work were assessed, from conventional journal articles to practice based research, and the sub-panel notes in its report that practice based work was as likely to be assessed as of high quality as any other form of output.
Before, and indeed during the exercise, there was much anxiety and debate about the introduction of ‘impact’ to the assessment criteria. This was intended to assess the success of research in improving life beyond the academy, but was almost certainly originally intended to have a narrow economistic meaning which would regard, and measure, university research by an utterly functional gauge with a focus on the extent to which research underpinned the efforts and success of British industry. Not surprisingly this alarmed and indeed depressed many, and in the development of the REF considerable effort (not least from MeCCSA) was targeted at expanding this drearily utilitarian notion of research into something more in tune with academic ideals and aspirations. While the battle was won doubtless the war will continue. However, in the mean time it was notable how well many arts and humanities subjects fared in this aspect of the assessment. In the case of sub-panel 36 (in which of course much work was social science rooted as much as arts and humanities) the overview report notes that “three-quarters of the work submitted was regarded as having outstanding or very considerable impact…”.
The THE inevitably reconstituted the results into league tables, and in our area the five leading institutions (with nearly 100 FTE staff entered between them) were LSE; Cardiff; Goldsmiths; Westminster, and Loughborough (omitting units whose main work was outside our field). However it was strength in depth that was noticeable. The number of institutions entered had grown from 47 in 2008 to 67 (935 FTE staff) in 2014, and even allowing for the inclusion of information and library sciences, the numbers speak of a vibrant and high quality field of work. While research funding remains problematic, the sub-panel report nonetheless notes “the richness of research environments and…the creative use of research funding”. While noting the welcome growth in research student degrees awarded it suggests that it “is plainly vital for the future development and vitality of the fields that research training of young academics continues to thrive and is well supported”.
Whatever the rights and wrongs of the audit culture to which the REF belongs, the 2014 results demonstrate unambiguously that ours is an international success story, with top class research being undertaken in many areas and right across the sector.
REF results: https://results.ref.ac.uk/Results/ByUoa/36
Subject overview report: https://www.ref.ac.uk/media/ref/content/expanel/member/Main%20Panel%20D%20overview%20report.pdf