5 things I hate about the REF

The Research “Excellence” “Framework” is how university departments are judged on their research.

It’s more than that though. It determines our funding, and it is effectively the only way that an institution can influence how much money it gets from the central funding agencies. This is in part due to the fact that under the new 9k fees regime, student-related funding pretty much all comes from students. If we get better at teaching, we might be able to get more money as that might reflect itself in better student satisfaction scores which might lead to higher recruitment, which might lead to more money… but the link between teaching quality and hard cash is not as clear and is not as immediate as the link between “research assessment” and cash. So those with an eye on the pennies concentrate on the REF.

And I hate it.

And so does pretty much everyone else in HE, as far as I can tell. Here’s why I hate it:

  1. It takes up years of time that could be spend doing actual research. Or, you know, teaching. Or outreach. Or something else that’s of value to science, students, or the wider community. Around 200,000 papers have been reviewed by expert panels of professors. In universities across the land, staff are employed just to handle the REF. In every department in every university across the UK, at least one professor has lost months of their life collating and pulling together the departmental submission. Just think how much better the student experience would be if we’d ignored the ref and these people had concentrated on teaching instead. Or how many new articles, chapters, books, or textbooks might have been written. What a waste it is.
  2. It’s circular, that is, it counts inputs as outputs. You get better scores in the REF if you bring in more money. So if you get bucket loads of cash and produce excellent papers, you get a better score than if you got no cash but produced the same papers. Surely if we’re interested in funding cost effective research, those departments that manage to produce excellent outputs for less money are the ones to back?
  3. You get what you reward and with the REF, that’s papers in journals. Don’t bother writing long stuff – not book chapters, and certainly not books. These are a waste of time. Grant income counts, but not all grants are equal; RCUK grants are what you need. Small charity grants? Don’t bother. Outreach grants? Waste of time. Interdisciplinary work can be hard to judge – should it be assessed by computing, or by biology? Maybe we should play it safe and only work on things which easily fit in a box.
  4. It causes game playing. I’ve heard of universities appointing 20% lecturers and professors who actually live in China. I can’t think of any world in which this is a sensible or moral use of UK university money.
  5. It encourages short-termism. Research which has no immediate publication is not valued. Research which is blue sky isn’t valued. The guy who got the Nobel Prize for the Higgs Boson (unsurprisingly, a guy called Higgs) says “It’s difficult to imagine how I would ever have enough peace and quiet in the present sort of climate to do what I did in 1964”.

Results are out at midnight. Across the UK, academics will be pressing reload on the Times Higher, checking for new mail, and trying to work out what the implications will be. Less cash for research, more admin, and the same unis winning as last time: that’s my prediction.

2 thoughts on “5 things I hate about the REF

  1. have fun! concatenate every VC’s press release this morning & run the result through a Markov mill.
    the output will look just like the input.

    in my house, the cats are world leading for output. the slow cooker’s impact is second to few.

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