HEFCE Consultation on the REF

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On 8 December 2016, the Funding Councils issued their Consultation on REF2021 (http://www.hefce.ac.uk/pubs/year/2016/201636/ ).  This is their attempt to turn the principles of the Stern review into practice and the 44 questions, many of which pose significant and interlinked challenges to the sector, highlight just how hard it is to do this.

The REF team’s approach to the Consultation is undoubtedly to be welcomed: the discussion meetings they have convened have been genuinely open and consultative, with a strong emphasis on the need for the sector to come up with viable alternatives to the most challenging proposals rather than simply rubbishing everything. There is no question that the REF team have a very difficult balancing act ahead of them: they have to produce an outcome which as far as it can be is true to the principles of Stern and does not upset their political masters, whilst simultaneously suiting the whole of a very diverse sector and avoiding the most obvious and egregious unintended consequences. The various posts about the consultation on the HEFCE blog (http://blog.hefce.ac.uk/) showcase some of the issues the team have encountered, and one can only speculate how significant the choice of topics covered might be with respect to the decisions that have to be made after the consultation closes.

One benefit of attending these discussion events is the opportunity this gives to assess the mood of the sector about the proposals. I have been present at four such meetings so far, and I’d highlight the following:

  • There is no appetite for the use of HESA cost codes to allocate staff to UOAs; it is clear that this would be an inappropriate and potentially counter-productive use of this dataset
  • The definition of research-active staff is highly problematic for post-92 institutions, where legislation or custom and practice mean that academic staff are almost always appointed on 3-legged contracts regardless of what activities they undertake
  • There is considerable disagreement about the appropriate minimum and maximum number of outputs to be submitted per member of staff (0 or 1 to 4, or 6 or any number), and this ties in closely to how “research active” is defined
  • The implementation of non-portability is likely to be extremely challenging to many institutions, given the data that would be needed to do this, and negative consequences are possible for certain categories of staff
  • There is limited support for institutional environmental templates and even less support for the proposed institutional case studies, which are not perceived to address any particular problem.

Discussions have often focussed on the challenges of the “rubics cube” of proposals relating to the definition of research-active staff, the number of outputs to be submitted and non-portability, which are all highly interlinked and where one dimension can’t be altered without implications for the other proposals. This is the most complex area to sort out, and the one where it is most difficult to predict an outcome at this stage of the proceedings.

So, where do I think that we will end up? I think we may see something like this:

  • The use of HESA data as a starting point for defining UOA allocation and total staff fte, followed by a discussion with each institution to agree the final position
  • In the longer term, work with HESA to ensure that the right data is being collected to support the REF exercise
  • A more pragmatic definition of “research-active” (perhaps a return to that used in previous exercises), with a more nuanced definition of “research independence” that takes into account disciplinary and sectoral differences
  • Rather than output non-portability, some form of sharing of outputs when staff move institutions; there may be a pilot of non-portability with the intention of moving to such an approach in subsequent exercises
  • A revised definition of impact, which probably won’t go much beyond what was allowed in 2014 but which will be clearer and more detailed in its unpacking of the different types of impact, combined with (I really hope) better training of staff on sub-panels so that they are more comfortable dealing with types of impact with which they are less familiar
  • Some form of assessment of environment at institutional level, but this might be built into UOA level environment statements rather than forming a separate element of the submission
  • A much more flexible approach to institutional case studies, which does not take credit away from the contributing UOAs

Overall, we must remember that Stern advocated a reform that reduced the burden of the exercise for both institutions and sub-panels. It would be deeply frustrating, if entirely consistent with previous REF reviews, if at the end of all these discussions we see an increase in burden delivering dubious benefits.  We shall certainly argue against this in our institutional response.

Elizabeth is responsible for managing the Research Planning Team, overseeing REF preparation, and especially support for Impact.  She also co-ordinates support for Open Access and Open Data working closely with colleagues from across Professional Services, but especially ITS, Library Services and RIS,  and is business owner for the institution’s CRIS system, Pure.  She is secretary to the University’s Research Committee and works closely with the PVC (Research and Knowledge Transfer) to support delivery of the University’s Research and especially REF objectives.

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