Tiffany Jenkins: REF should be called to account

Edinburgh University finished in fourth place. Picture: Geograph
Edinburgh University finished in fourth place. Picture: Geograph
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SYSTEM for evaluating research in our universities is not fit for purpose. So why are we not challenging it, asks Tiffany Jenkins.

Celebratory cheers and desperate sobs echoed down university corridors this week, as the results of the REF were published – the Research Excellence Framework, which purports to assess the quality of research in British universities. It is a league table for academia.

Scotland has done well. Most Scottish universities maintained or improved their standing. Edinburgh University has done very well, coming in fourth place, up one in the table from the last REF in 2008. Glasgow came 13th, also moving up one place. St Andrews, Aberdeen, Strathclyde, Dundee, Heriot-Watt and Stirling all made the top 50, out of 154 UK universities. Not bad. Overall, every Scottish university is judged to do some research of world-leading quality. More than 85 per cent of university research in Scotland was judged to have an outstanding or very significant impact in wider society and economy.

But do these results mean anything? Are they reason to crack open the Champagne? Should we congratulate the academics and feel hopeful for students? Well, these results are important. They are the basis for the allocation of over £1 billion of research funding from the UK government, in a time of dwindling research resources. They matter for promotions, hiring and, probably, redundancies. They are the marks that students and parents scrutinise; as do academics, when selecting which university to attend and respect – the REF claims to assess, after all, the quality of research on a worldwide scale, even though it’s UK focused. It’s a big deal.

But, unfortunately, whilst having major consequences, the REF is not fit for purpose. It is a costly exercise (officially £60 million, but probably much more). It takes up a monumental amount of time and energy. It doesn’t really measure what it claims to. And overall, it has had a deleterious impact upon academic work, collegiality, on the purpose, even, of the university. It is a joke in academic circles – including those that have done well - but few are laughing.

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There is nothing wrong with accountability, indeed it’s vital, but there are limitations to what is assessed, how and why under this system. One problem is what the REF doesn’t measure. It is not interested in teaching – just research – and thus, in effect, separates the two. Crucially, because the REF is so important for the sector, it helps to demote teaching overall. Now, with the pressures of the process, lecturers buy themselves out of teaching, giving this work to a postgraduate student, spending all their energy trying to publish their research – the output that is measured. Other types of academic work essential to the university are also put to one side, including book reviewing or sitting on the board of an academic journal, both of which help others to publish; certain media work; or writing a chapter for a multi-authored book. These important activities are not counted and, therefore, don’t count for much anymore.

But at least the REF assesses the quality of research, you may think. Well, sort of. Publication is what is judged – hence the popular phrase: “publish or perish”. But the assessors for the REF, who are not always the top experts in the field, grade certain kinds of publications over others, in a very short amount of time (36 disciplinary panels assessed the world of 191,232 outputs by 52,077 people this time round), which makes you wonder if the system really measures the quality of research well, if such a thing is even possible through metrics. It is a process that has negatively influenced what is published. A single authored book, which requires extensive research across years and has the space to develop an argument, counts for the same REF contribution as a short, multi-authored article in a particular journal. On the whole, the latter is easier to publish; the former is more demanding. You don’t have to be Einstein to guess which one most people opt for. There is usually a rush to publish in as many journals as possible, when the research results may not be ready to be submitted to that journal, or indeed any journal.

And because each piece of published work can only be submitted once per institution, collaboration between academics in that institution is frowned on, when it may make intellectual sense, if your eye is not on the REF. People in the same department refrain from working together. They are encouraged to forge links elsewhere. Those that aren’t selected to enter the REF are shunned. And then there are those hired specifically for what they offer the REF. And “hired” is a bit of a generous term here: it has become common to employ “visiting” academics, professors who have a good publication list which can be included in the REF submission, but who rarely if ever peek into the lecture halls. The Philosophy department at Birmingham University fared well in this REF. It also hired a number of big-name American philosophers who haven’t been seen all that often on campus. Is this in the best interests of the students and of knowledge?

You have to ask if a system that rewards publishing in top journals is the best way to incentivise original and challenging research. The pressure to publish in selected journals for this process has meant that people write up what they think will be accepted. Game playing and writing to the test is the norm. Conservatism reigns.

But we cannot blame the REF for all these problems. It has made things worse; it is not entirely at fault. Were the sector confident about its purpose and value, perhaps it wouldn’t be so easily cowed and academics wouldn’t let the process dominate. We need to stop cynically accepting the REF, hoping that it will go away on its own. We need to challenge it. Because it’s not good enough. If we care that future generations learn in an environment that values teaching and if we care about open-ended and innovative scholarship – in short, if we want good universities – we should rethink the REF.

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