REF 2014: Are your lecturers offering ‘bloody sacrifices’ to ‘a Minotaur’?

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Have your lecturers been sweating while clicking through slides on the podium? Have you seen professors burning through stress-balls in strides between offices and printers? Have you overheard academic peers cursing a monosyllabic acronym like indignant football fans? REF! REF!

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© Open Access

Tonight marks the publication date for the official findings of the Research Excellence Framework 2014, the assessment by the UK’s higher education funding bodies. The publication of REF 2014’s results at one minute past midnight on December 18th has thousands of academics staying up late and glued to their computer screens; the REF may decide their future and the future of their research and teaching fields.  Not every academic and department is required to take part; some have even withdrawn their submissions in protest against the REF’s conditions such as Prof. Derek Sayer of the University of Lancaster’s Department of History. He has vehemently condemned the REF’s practices as wasteful, unjustified and even instrumental in hobbling academic freedom:

“The REF is an apparatus of empowerment (of some) and subordination (of others). It allows the activities of individual academics to be brought under an unprecedented degree of institutional control.”

However, the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) maintains the REF is a necessary and sound system for determining the proper allocation of research funding. Support or oppose it, the REF 2014 could decide whether your research-focused department is shuttered or gets a new swimming pool.

So what should students know about the REF 2014 and how will it affect the present crop of undergraduates and postgraduates?

1. What exactly is the REF 2014?

The assessment is a large-scale exercise involving the submission and review of over 190,000 submissions by 52,000 academic staff, according to The Guardian. The exercise determines how up to £2 billion in research funding is allocated to university departments across the UK. Research published between 2008 and December 2013 was included in REF 2014, with submissions closing in November of last year. It replaced the previous system of assessing the quality of academic research, the Research Assessment Exercise (RAE), which ran in 1986, 1989, 1992, 1996, 2001 and 2008. Both systems have been hugely controversial from their inception and like the RAE, the REF is opposed by many academics and the University and College Union (UCU).

2. What does it involve?

University departments seeking a share of research grants from UK Higher Education funding bodies, HEFCE being the largest, are required to submit their best published research over the past five years to panels of ‘experts’. Each academic that is eligible to submit to the REF 2014 must present four pieces of published research, which is assessed for ‘quality of research output’, ‘vibrancy of research environment’ and ‘impact outside of academia’.

The assessment involves a form of peer review across 36 subject areas; there are 36 corresponding subpanels of assessors with members drawn from active researchers and users of research – that is, academics will be judged not only by other academics but by industry professionals, civil servants and others who constitute the primary users of research output.

3. Why do so many university staff oppose it?

Peter Scott, the Professor of Higher Education Studies at the Institute of Education, subtly analogised the REF 2014 to “a Minotaur that must be appeased by bloody sacrifices”.

RAE was blamed for the closure of departments which failed to meet its requirements, encouraging universities to prioritise research over teaching and causing widespread demoralisation and division among staff in university departments. This, among other problems with the RAE plans implemented between 1986 and 2008, led to its reformation and re-constitution as the REF. Although REF 2014 is the first implementation of the new system, it has already attracted a wave of criticism from academics inside and outside the eligibility for submission. Universities have been accused of ‘REF Poaching’, the practice of recruiting and parachuting in academics from other institutions with a high research output, at the expense of their extant long-term staff and applicants for vacancies.

REF 2014 has also been accused of neglecting or ignoring basic standards of ‘peer review’ that are upheld by the very journals in which the assessed research is published; REF 2014 assessments are not protected by anonymity or the double-blind peer review process employed by most scientific journals, for example. The apparent lack of specialisation in subpanel reviews is another accusation based upon changes between the previous maligned RAE and the REF 2014, with RAE 2008’s 67 subpanels reduced to 36. Assessors may lack the time necessary to properly review the material in their hands. Derek Sayer alleges that “In all, about 1,000 assessors will have graded all 191,232 outputs for REF 2014”. He also quotes the head of the School of Mathematical and Physical Sciences at the University of Sussex Peter Coles as saying “It is…blindingly obvious… that whatever the panel does do, will not be a thorough peer review of each paper, equivalent to refereeing it for publication in a journal”.

4. Does it matter to students?

If your department does well out of its submissions to REF 2014, you may experience the benefits of new funding and facilities, as well as the prestige of being part of a collegiate body recognised for its research output. However, if REF 2014 finds said output wanting, prepare for a very likely drop in financial support from the UK’s mot important HE funding organisations. In any case, the amount of time, labour hours and psychological strain exerted on university staff in preparation for REF 2014 has earned some of the strongest criticism from Peter Scott, Derek Sayer and others. The REF’s critics maintain that, whether the REF secures a department funding or not, it wastes time, money and academic morale.

Academics are not alone in following the publication of REF results on tenterhooks. HE policy experts, enthusiasts and many economists with focus on education are keeping close eyes on the REF website. Mark Leach, the Director of the Higher Education think tank WonkHE, was candid about the intense interest in the results felt across the sector, he said on his Twitter:

I’ve reached that point in the day when I have so many spreadsheets open, I’m accidentally ranking my shopping list #REF2014