The turn­ing of the REF screw

THE (Times Higher Education) - - NEWS - Jonathan Grant is pro­fes­sor of pub­lic pol­icy at King’s Col­lege Lon­don and as­sis­tant prin­ci­pal for strate­gic ini­tia­tives and pub­lic pol­icy.

In late 2013, I led a project eval­u­at­ing how univer­si­ties went about pre­par­ing the im­pact el­e­ment of their sub­mis­sion to the 2014 re­search ex­cel­lence frame­work. As was widely re­ported, we es­ti­mated that the mon­e­tised costs of pre­par­ing sub­mis­sions across the sec­tor was about £55 mil­lion. Less re­ported was our ob­ser­va­tion on the non-mon­e­tised costs: the work­load, pres­sure and men­tal health bur­den put on those re­spon­si­ble for de­vel­op­ing the case stud­ies, on which most of the im­pact score de­pended.

I vividly re­mem­ber fa­cil­i­tat­ing a som­bre fo­cus group with about half a dozen aca­demics from the same in­sti­tu­tion. They were all case study “leads” – the peo­ple whose im­pact was be­ing re­ported and who were re­spon­si­ble for de­vel­op­ing the case study. Emo­tions were shared and tears shed as the re­searchers ex­plained the pres­sures they felt un­der – in terms of work­load, but, just as im­por­tantly, in terms of the re­spon­si­bil­ity they felt to their col­leagues. About one im­pact case study was re­quired for ev­ery 10 full-time equiv­a­lents, mean­ing that, in ef­fect, one per­son (or team) bore the re­spon­si­bil­ity and work­load of nine oth­ers.

Last year’s Stern re­view of the REF ac­knowl­edged some of these is­sues in re­la­tion to the se­lec­tion of staff and re­search out­puts to be sub­mit­ted, not­ing that such de­ci­sions “can gen­er­ate prob­lems with ca­reer choices, pro­gres­sion and morale”. Partly as a con­se­quence, Stern rec­om­mended that all re­search-ac­tive staff should be sub­mit­ted in fu­ture, and that out­puts should be de­cou­pled from in­di­vid­u­als. The fund­ing bod­ies’ re­cently pub­lished Ini­tial De­ci­sions on REF 2021 equiv­o­cated on these is­sues, mainly due to the com­plex­ity of im­ple­men­ta­tion, but fur­ther con­sul­ta­tion was promised.

At the same time as the next REF is be­ing de­signed, it is in­creas­ingly be­ing ac­knowl­edged that aca­demics face a men­tal health cri­sis. While some illinformed politi­cians may be­lieve that aca­demics have a cushy life with ex­tended sum­mer breaks, a re­cent re­port by for­mer col­leagues of mine at RAND Europe, pro­duced for the Royal So­ci­ety and Well­come Trust, con­cluded that lev­els of work-re­lated stress ap­pear to be higher among uni­ver­sity staff than among gen­eral work­ing pop­u­la­tions, be­ing com­pa­ra­ble to “high­risk” groups, such as health­care work- ers. They also noted that aca­demics ap­pear not to be dis­clos­ing their men­tal health con­di­tions, with only 6.2 per cent hav­ing done so, de­spite an es­ti­mated 37 per cent hav­ing a com­mon dis­or­der. As dis­cussed in the re­port, such com­par­isons have to be treated with care, but the point is that the men­tal health of staff and stu­dents is an in­creas­ing con­cern for uni­ver­sity lead­er­ship.

Which brings me back to im­pact. One of the sur­prise an­nounce­ments in the Ini­tial De­ci­sions doc­u­ment was the in­crease of the im­pact weight­ing from 20 to 25 per cent of the to­tal. I had ex­pected the im­pact tem­plate, which de­scribes how de­part­ments sup­port im­pact gen­er­a­tion, to be moved to the sec­tion on re­search en­vi­ron­ment; as it counted for a fifth of im­pact as­sess­ment in 2014, that would have been equiv­a­lent to in­creas­ing the weight­ing of im­pact to 25 per cent in 2021. The fact that both changes will be im­ple­mented means that, in a like-for-like sense, the weight­ing for im­pact case stud­ies has nearly dou­bled, from 16 per cent in 2014 to 25 per cent in 2021.

I wel­come the fur­ther in­cen­tive that this will pro­vide for univer­si­ties to con­sider how they con­trib­ute to so­ci­ety. But the move to unit-level sub­mis­sion of out­puts (which will ac­count for 60 per cent of 2021 scores – down from 65) means that the im­pact case stud­ies will be the only in­di­vid­ual el­e­ment in 2021. Granted, the case stud­ies are sup­posed to be about a body of work rather than in­di­vid­u­als, but the les­son from 2014 is that in­di­vid­u­als were held re­spon­si­ble for the case stud­ies and there is noth­ing in the new rules to sug­gest that this will change. There­fore, given the in­creased weight­ing of im­pact, we can only ex­pect such in­di­vid­u­als to be put un­der even more pres­sure in 2021.

The only rem­edy is for univer­si­ties, as they put in place pro­cesses for iden­ti­fy­ing and de­vel­op­ing the case stud­ies, to con­sider how they are go­ing to sup­port those in­di­vid­u­als. If they don’t, the men­tal health sta­tis­tics are only likely to get worse.

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