REF and its predecessors: impact on the higher education sector and UCU critique

The 2014 REF will be the seventh UK-wide assessment of research since the first one was introduced in the mid-1980s (exercises took place in 1986, 1989, 1992, 1996, 2001 and 2008). Throughout this period, the UCU – and its predecessor unions – have challenged and critiqued these exercises.

We have questioned the relentless emphasis on publications in particular journals, the narrowing of research opportunities through the over-concentration of funding in a smaller and smaller number of universities, and the undermining of the relationship between teaching and research. Unsatisfactory RAE scores have been used as justification for the closure of departments with strong research profiles and healthy student recruitment.

Fundamentally, the REF (and the RAE before it) has significantly altered the behaviour of both higher education institutions and academics in a way that is detrimental both to research and individual academics.  The REF has obliged academic staff to adopt research and publications strategies geared almost exclusively towards maximising outputs that meet institutional criteria for REF submission. This has served to marginalise certain forms of more experimental, exploratory or longer term research.  While articles in peer-reviewed journals are seen as the most desirable output, work on longer monographs, collaborative edited collections and other forms of research dissemination has been disincentivised.

Institutional strategies to maximise REF performance have accelerated these tendencies and exacerbated the pressures on academic staff. Increasingly, institutions have introduced new performance management or expectations policies whereby academic performance is judged on whether or not criteria for inclusion in the institution’s REF submission have been met, with staff not meeting these criteria suffering career detriment. In a number of cases, this has meant changes to terms and conditions and academic duties.

The 2008 RAE resulted in a significant amount of unfair and punitive treatment of academic staff and it is already clear from reports we have from UCU branches and members that similar practices are being initiated in relation to the 2014 REF.

Moreover, the pressure to produce the necessary quantity and quality of outputs for the REF has (as it did for the previous RAEs) had a significant impact on the workload of academic staff, with members reporting increasing stress levels and a negative impact on their health.  Combining work on REF outputs, often combined with sizeable teaching responsibility and ever increasing administrative duties (some derived directly from the REF) has further increased the tendency (and the need for) academic staff to work excessive hours in order to keep on top of their workload.

We have strong concerns about the way in which REF and its predecessors have been predicated on a process whereby HEIs select particular academic staff for inclusion or non-inclusion, the potential for discriminatory processes in making such selection, and the impact on staff not selected for inclusion.

UCU has highlighted how previous RAEs have helped reinforce discriminatory practices, particularly in relation to women on maternity leave, but also how the eligibility rules reinforce the second-class status of fixed-term researchers (by labelling them all as ‘research assistants’).

Through our lobbying work we have been able to make some improvements with regard to the original proposals for the REF, and in relation to particular problems identified in its predecessor RAE. UCU and its predecessors have been active in pushing equality issues in particular, notably around maternity leave.

We have also pushed for the assessment framework to take greater account of the ‘research environment’ (such as staffing policy) and to recognise a wider range of research outputs.

Moreover, we led the campaign against the original REF impact proposals – nearly 18,000 academics signed our ‘Stand Up for Research’ statement: http://www.ucu.org.uk/index.cfm?articleid=4207 And although we weren’t able to see off the proposals in their entirety we did help to ensure that ‘impact’ will play a much smaller part in the REF than originally envisaged (e.g. reduction in % weighting and the adoption of a case-study approach).

Nevertheless, the REF remains a deeply flawed and damaging process. UCU work in relation to the REF thus remains twofold:

i)     to highlight the flawed nature of the exercise and its detrimental impact on staff and the sector as a whole;

ii)     to seek improvements to the REF process and to institutional procedures for selecting staff for the REF submissions so that it is fair and transparent as possible, and to ensure no-detriment for staff not included in their institution’s REF submission.

With regard to the latter, UCU has produced guidance for branches to assist them in influencing the development of internal institutional selection procedures for the REF submission, and in seeking agreement with their institutions around no-detriment principles.  See: http://www.ucu.org.uk/REF

We have also undertaken survey work (reported elsewhere on the blog) to better understand the impact of the REF on academic staff, and their perceptions as to the fairness and transparency of institutional selection procedures and the overall impact of the REF on the sector as a whole.

In addition, we have also established this blog in order to gather together commentaries on and critiques of the REF from UCU members and other individuals and organisations working within the HE sector. If you are interested in contributing, please contact ucurefwatch@ucu.org.uk.

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