Stern review says little about how REF has affected teaching

Ruthless competition among academics could leave many scarred and deflated. shutterstock/ArtFamily

In the super-inflated market for star footballers, there is one thing a striker cannot do: move his winning goals to his new club. Not so in the almost equally inflated market for “star academics”. Here, researchers can transfer the credit for their publications to a new employer, at least for the purposes of the Research Assessment Exercise, the process of evaluating and ranking all university departments in the UK.

This is just one of the system’s absurdities that the long-awaited review by Lord Nicholas Stern wants to put right. The review, which was published over the summer, made a few well aimed recommendations to correct the most obvious anomalies of the Research Assessment Exercise, or REF. The REF is a five or six-yearly evaluation of the research quality of each and every university department in the UK by panels of experts made up mostly of academics themselves. A great deal hangs on these evaluations, including institutional reputations, individual academics’ careers, student recruitment and opportunities for further research funding.

Stern proposed that universities stop deciding which and how many of their research staff to submit for evaluation. Being left out of the REF has long been a source of fear and anxiety among academics. This has been tantamount to stating that their research does not make the cut and including them in the REF would drag down the ranking of their department. The implied threat of being left out of the REF has been increased teaching and administrative loads.

The system has also led to grotesque gaming in which universities that include a larger proportion of their staff in the evaluation suffer in the rankings. Declaring only a minority of star researchers generally raises the position of a department in the rankings, which take no notice of those left out of the REF.

Including every academic in the REF would substantially increase the costs of the exercise. And the REF’s cost is an obvious concern to Stern, who estimated that the last exercise (2014) cost £246m to evaluate 52,000 academics out of a possible 145,000. At an average of nearly £5,000 to evaluate each submitted researcher – paid by the taxpayer – the REF is not cheap. But Stern wishes to leave this cost unchanged even though evaluating every eligible academic would actually increase the costs.

To forestall this, he proposes a reduction of the number of publications per faculty member to an average of two instead of the current fixed four. This is one of the report’s most significant and under-reported ideas – and as yet, its implications are unclear. Consider, for example, a department with one prolific researcher who submits to six prestigious publications and six less distinguished colleagues who submit one publication each. Would such a department be evaluated on the same basis as a department of six academics each submitting two publications? No one knows.

Marginal improvements

The review’s attempt to leave the cost of the REF unchanged is typical of its timidity. It offers some recommendations for marginal improvements rather than a considered assessment of the overall effects of the REF. Though this timidity is surprising – given the boldness of Stern’s earlier report on the economics of climate change – it is not a total surprise, given that the membership of his steering group included many of the greats and the good in higher education but no union, professional or student representation. This addition might have led to a better recognition of the hidden costs, especially the time taken away from teaching and pastoral care of students and the emotional costs of academics’ single-minded obsession with publications.

Another day in the lab. Shutterstock

What the review refuses to notice is the extent to which the REF has turned academic research from a vocation to pursue knowledge and scholarship into a tyrannical game of “hits” in “top journals”. This has contributed to a massive growth in the numbers of research journals, with about 250 new ones starting every year. The number of published articles has also ballooned to over a million a year. Yet most of them languish unread and uncited.

Ruthless competition

This overproduction of research papers – most of them meaningful only to tiny academic tribes – is costly well beyond the costs of the REF. It reduces teaching to a second-class activity compared to “research”. It prevents academics from dedicating more time and care to their students – and it stops them from reading works which have something original and meaningful to say.

It also increases the costs of higher education which are ultimately paid by taxpayers, students and their parents. It promotes ruthless competition among academics which leaves many of them scarred and deflated. On top of that, it fosters the growth of adjunct staff on low salaries and precarious work conditions. It exacerbates inequalities between star researchers and their “ordinary” peers – depressing the earnings of the latter in order to boost those of the former. And it breeds endless self-promotion and hype among universities and their departments.

Academics have less time to care for their students. Shutterstock

On the burning issue of how the REF has affected teaching, pastoral care of students, academic citizenship and general scholarship, Stern’s review remains largely silent, happy with some pious platitudes on the need to harmonise the REF with the forthcoming Teaching Excellence Framework, destined to become its equally dysfunctional twin. And in doing so, Stern colludes with a state of affairs, exacerbated by the REF, that harbours grave troubles for institutions, students, graduates and society at large.

Higher education may not engender the same dangers as climate change but the current system is unsustainable. It is an expensive and wasteful system with few winners and many losers. It is a system the deters many bright graduates from pursuing academic careers. It is a costly system that puts the survival of numerous university departments and potentially entire institutions at risk. And it must be said that the quality of teaching offered to students is at best uneven – as is the value of their qualifications.

Ultimately, all of this calls for a major rethink of how university research is conducted and rewarded. Unfortunately rather than the mass overhaul required, Stern seems satisfied with merely tampering at the edges.