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Stress put on academics by the REF recognised in Stern review

Pinpointing the problems with the way research is assessed. A and N photography/

All researchers at a university should be considered when the quality of an institution’s research is assessed, according to a new independent review of the process by Lord Nicholas Stern, president of the British Academy.

The idea of a “universal submission” of researchers is one of Stern’s key recommendations for changes to the Research Excellence Framework (REF) – a process which influences the amount of money universities receive from the government for research. The last REF took place in 2014 and the next round of assessment is due in 2020-21.

Some institutions were hyper-selective in the choice of those researchers they submitted to the exercise in 2014. This meant that claims of “institutional” research excellence made by universities were only ever partial. The recommendation that all researchers should be assessed signals an effort by Stern to correct and dispel the kinds of “gaming” of the REF perpetuated by universities in 2014.

Criticisms of institutional selectivity in 2014 are unsurprisingly abundant. Any claim of institutional excellence when “excellence” only refers to a top slice and neglects to factor in the contributions of others is not an entirely faithful reflection of collective achievement.

Stern’s recommendation is not only aimed at preventing the future telling of half-truths that distort and exaggerate the reality of the UK’s research landscape. It could also help to counteract the devastating impact on morale, self-worth and trust caused by an institutional policy of cherry-picking “the best” researchers.

No more game playing. Africa studio/

Unintended consequences

But while this recommendation might hopefully culminate in the eradication of one form of selective behaviour, it might produce another. One imaginary scenario would be that of universities redrawing researchers’ employment contracts.

In simple terms, this might translate into those researchers deemed unlikely to be able to contribute to a competitive REF submission having their contractual time allocated for research retracted by their institutions. Enforced movement from teaching and research to “teaching-only” contracts would shift the goal-posts of whether an academic is eligible to be submitted to the REF. This would mean that institutions would not be obliged to include them in the REF – so that the competitiveness of the university’s submission would not necessarily be compromised.

It’s possible that some researchers could be deemed “less than eligible” for REF submission based on a number of factors, such as the stage of their career or their domestic circumstance. The implicit danger of universal submission is that these researchers will suffer worse marginalisation and forms of professional grievance than might have occurred in 2014. This raises a more profound problem of how the very process of the REF could end up diminishing what universities recognise as the role and contribution of the researcher: primarily, the successful procurement of research funds and prominence.

A broader role for impact

Stern also makes some recommendations about how assessment of research excellence includes an understanding of the wider public “impact” it has. Impact contributed to 20% of the way the REF was assessed in 2014 and Stern advises that it should “not comprise less than 20% in the next exercise” – leaving the door open for the share to be increased. He also suggests that impact on public engagement and understanding might play a greater role. This is particularly pertinent given the conundrum academics face when thinking about their public engagement work as either a conduit to future impact, or a form of impact in its own right.

Stern also recommends that the impact of research on teaching is recognised – an area which was murky at best in 2014. This appears designed to resolve a binary division which tends to segregate teaching and research cultures and which might be further exaggerated by the impending Teaching Excellence Framework. Stern also suggests that “institutional” impact case studies could be used to promote a greater culture of interdisciplinary research.

Moving around

One other major conspicuous recommendation is that research outputs, like research impacts, ought not to be portable – meaning that academics can only count research undertaken and published while they were at their current institution as part of the REF exercise. This aims to fix the problem of poaching and “rent-seeking” that goes on in the run-up to REF submission – this is disruptive and detrimental to what is ultimately a relatively small and highly interconnected professional community.

But some will identify this as being especially problematic to career access and mobility and a workforce that is typically migratory. For example, a researcher who has to move institution just before a REF exercise could possibly render their previous four or five years of research outputs obsolete.

At first glance, the Stern review offers UK universities a series of recommendations that seek to counter the kinds of deleterious effects on academics’ professional well-being and health caused by institutional game-playing of the REF. Here is an ambition for a broader, fairer and more equitable system of evaluation that all can “compete” within.

The Stern review should not, however, be mistaken for a ready-made solution to the excesses created by higher education’s new marketplace. The competition fetish which the REF embodies is seen by many to contaminate academic identity, agency, practice and community.

Ultimately, the Stern review makes some necessary and important admissions of the manifold risks to the welfare of the research community – where the pursuit of excellence and public money trumps all other concerns. It hopefully might also shunt the spotlight away from individual researchers themselves and onto the organisational practice of their universities.

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