REF selection practices and their detrimental impact on academic careers

The detrimental impact of the REF (and the RAE before it) manifests itself in a number of ways.  In obliging academic staff to adopt research and publication strategies geared towards maximising outputs that meet institutional criteria for REF submission, these exercises have distorted the nature of academic endeavour and damaged academic freedom in UK HEIs. 

Furthermore, many HEIs have implemented strategies to maximise REF performance which create unreasonable performance expectations for academic staff. The UCU REF survey conducted in May-June 2013 illustrated the degree to which these performance expectations are exacerbating high workload pressures for academic staff and increasing stress levels.  Reports from UCU branches and responses to the REF survey indicated that academic staff in a number of institutions have been warned about likely career detriment should they fail to meet institutional REF expectations. This includes threats to move staff onto ‘teaching-focused’ contracts and/or remove support for staff to undertake research in the future, and threats to put staff on ‘capability’ procedures and manage them out of the institution altogether.  While for others the threat may not be explicit, the REF has generated a general climate of anxiety and uncertainty as to the resulting impact on career progression and job security should they fail to meet REF expectations.

The experience of previous RAEs suggests that once the results of the REF assessment and likely funding decisions based on them are known, there is likely to be a renewed period of ‘restructuring’ and consolidation and realignment of research priorities which will impact on academic staff through departmental or research unit closures, changes to academic workload and/or contractual duties and job losses.

Implicit in the approach some institutions are taking in relation to the REF is that the only research that counts is that which contributes to the REF return (possibly with the exception of research projects bringing in large amounts of external funding). Where institutions seek to move those academic staff not included in the REF return to teaching-focused contracts this also seems to imply that such staff are ‘second class’ academics (and teaching is secondary to research), particularly when they are placed on inferior terms and conditions and have reduced opportunities for career progression (for a Guardian article discussing this issue see http://gu.com/p/3ff8h/tw). 

Minimising the detrimental impact of REF exclusion

The linking of performance expectations and possible career detriment to REF-based criteria is particularly problematic given the flawed nature of the assessment framework and deficiencies in institutional selection procedures which were highlighted in the UCU REF survey and also in analysis of HEI codes of practice on selection for the REF submission (see separate posting on REF selection practices).  More broadly, in reducing academic endeavour to quantifiable outputs, the REF is a rather crude indicator of performance. Furthermore, the level of ‘gaming’ that institutions engage in when preparing for and constructing their submissions undermines the whole process further (see separate posting on Quality thresholds and institutional gaming).  Given these considerations, the view of UCU is that inclusion in the REF submission should not be treated as a reliable indicator for assessing the research abilities or ‘performance’ of any individual academic. HEIs themselves need to recognise that the REF is a flawed measure of research outputs by academic units and indeed  a ‘game’ they play in order to acquire academic prestige and position themselves for future research funding. HEIs should therefore eschew linkages between REF inclusion, performance management of academic staff and possible career detriment or punitive sanctions.

UCU has accordingly called on HEIs to issue assurances that REF outputs or predicted REF scores will not be used in performance management policies or used to justify changes to terms and conditions or other career detriment. Our guidance on the REF to UCU branches has provided suggested wording on no-detriment for use in institutional codes of practice on REF selection or separately issued statements. Nevertheless, while there has been agreement at some HEIs around some form of no-detriment wording, a number of institutions continue to indicate that academic staff who do not meet REF-based criteria will suffer career detriment. Decisions that could make or break the careers of academic staff will thus continue to be made on the back of a flawed assessment exercise and local procedures lacking transparency and consistency, resulting in high levels of stress and serious damage to morale.

In this section of the blog, we are seeking to gather together commentaries on the way in which HEIs are handling the REF submission process, and examples of good and bad practice, including examples of detrimental processes that have arisen in relation to individuals not included in the REF submission. If you are interested in contributing, please contact ucurefwatch@ucu.org.uk (contributions can be made anonymously if preferred).

 

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