Tuesday, 20 March 2012

The REF: a monster that sucks time and money from academic institutions

I’ve long had a pretty cynical attitude towards the periodic exercises for rating research activities of UK higher education institutions. The problem is cost-effectiveness. Institutions put forward detailed submissions in which the best research outputs of their academics are documented. A panel of top academics then considers these, and central funding is awarded according to the ratings. This takes up massive amounts of time of those writing and reviewing the submissions.The end result is a rank ordering of institutions that seldom contains any surprises. Pretty much the same ordering could be obtained by, for instance, taking a panel of top academics in a given field and sitting them down in a room to vote. This is a point made many years ago by Colin Blakemore, talking about the REF’s predecessor, the RAE.
For the REF 2014, the rules have now changed, so that we don’t only have to document what research we’ve published: we also have to demonstrate its impact. Impact has a very specific definition. It has to originate from a particular academic paper and you have to be able to quantify its effect in the wider world. This poses a new challenge to those preparing REF submissions, a challenge that many institutions are taking very seriously. All over the UK, meetings are being convened to discuss impact statements. Here in Oxford, we’ve already had several long meetings of senior professors devoted just to this issue. Then this week I saw an advertisement from UCL that goes a step further. They are looking for three editorial consultants on a salary of £32,055 - £38,744 per annum to work on their REF impact statements.
This induced in me a sense of despair. Why, you may ask? After all, academics are hard-pressed and this is a way of taking some of the burden from them, while ensuring that their work is presented in the best possible light. My problem with this is that it exemplifies a shift in priorities from substance to presentation. Funds that could have been used to support the university’s core functions of teaching or research go towards PR. And the REF, an exercise that is supposed to enhance the UK’s research, ends up leaching money as well as time from the system.
Here’s a suggestion. Those who are on REF panels should do their own private rankings of higher education institutions and put them in a sealed envelope now. After the REF results are announced, they can compare the outcome with their predictions. Then we will be able to see whether the huge amounts of time and money spent on this exercise have been worthwhile.


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  3. It would be great if panel members took you up on your final paragraph. Sadly I suspect the uptake will be low.

  4. At today's meeting at UCL, I asked how it would be possible to demonstrate an impact outside academia of the work of Andrew Huxley, Bernard Katz or Bert Sakmann. Answer came there none.

    It seems that potential impacts don't count, so presumably Andre Geim would not qualify as having impact either.

    I fear that the effect of the impact agenda will be to push research in a direction such that the UK won't be in the running for Nobel Prizes in the future. That is not what HEFCE is meant to do.

  5. I recently had some thoughts about how REF interacts with our psychological dispositions...