Best in show?

December 19, 2014 - HE politics

One of the great things about the REF is the way every one’s a winner. Well, not everyone. But there are three different categories of stuff being measured, and two obvious choices of modifier. The things being “measured” are:

  • Outputs: these are the actual papers
  • Impact: this is a measure of how an institution’s research has impacted outside the academy
  • Environment: this is a nebulous bucket containing completed PhD students, grants won, and softness of toilet paper. Or something

And the obvious modifiers are number of people submitted (this gives us “power”, and is used as a multiplier) and proportion of “world class” (4*) research. So I’ve seen press releases saying “World class for impact”, and “Top 20” meaning top 20 for power, or top 20 for 4*, or top 20 for outputs alone. Across the UK, press offices have been frantically sorting REF spreadsheets to find a measure by which their departments do well.

Chris Hanretty (a politics lecturer from UEA) has generated a spreadsheet which lets you experiment with all of these metrics, and I have shamelessly plagiarised the section of this concerning Welsh Computer Science departments.

Here’s the full REF story for Aberystwyth Computer Science

  • We’re best in Wales for impact power, output power, and overall power (these measures all take into account how many people were entered)
  • We’re 2nd in Wales for environment power (taking into account number submitted). We’re also 2nd for impact rank and world-leading outputs (not taking into account number submitted)
  • We’re 3rd in Wales for overall rank, output rank, and environment rank, and also for world-leading impact, environment, and “overall world-leading”. None of these measures take into account staff numbers

All of these stories are true; some of them put us in a better light than others though.

What does it mean? Well, it means we submitted a lot of people, those people were good, and quite a lot of the things we submitted were world-leading. There’s a game to be played when doing the REF, and that game involves who’s in and who’s out: some institutions have played it so that they submit a small proportion of their staff, but those they submit are superb; others play it so that they submit lots of good staff. We went for the latter, and it shows, submitting 24.8 (Swansea submitted 19.6 and Cardiff 13.7). I heard informally that we were one of the departments with the highest proportion of staff submitted in the UK.

Why is this good? Well it means that if you come to study computer science in Aberystwyth, a lot of the people who teach you will also do world class research. It also (I think) reflects the way the money will be distributed, so we should get a bit more research cash too.

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