Impact of the REF on Early Career Academics

The sector wide emphasis on the REF has led to HEIs adopting recruitment strategies aimed at maximising REF performance in particular units of assessment. At one end of the spectrum, this has created a transfer market among certain academics able to deliver the necessary top-graded outputs. However, at the other end of the spectrum, it has created particular pressures for early career academics.

Early career academics have found the goalposts shifting in terms of what is required to get into entry-level actions positions as a result of REF related expectations. Reports from UCU members/branches suggest that expectations placed upon entry-level academics in terms of REF outputs will often be the same as those applying to colleagues at more senior grades.  This is notwithstanding ‘academic role profiles’ agreed between the staff unions and the employers and applying at most HEIs, which specify different levels of role expectations for different grades of staff (see

A scan of job adverts for entry level academic positions indicates that it is common for institutions to include in the role specification a requirement that applicants already have produced/or be in the course of producing outputs suitable for inclusion in the REF. Job adverts/specifications often refer to the need to have four ‘REF-able’ outputs, notwithstanding the possibility that early careers researchers can be submitted to the REF with reduced outputs depending on date of appointment.  If they have not already met REF submission criteria, applicants are expected to be well on the road to them, and once in post, early career academics are often then informed that confirmation in post following the initial probation period is dependent on meeting these criteria.

Having four REF-ready outputs might be regarded as a rather onerous expectation for applicants for entry-level academic positions, when one considers that they are often not in continuous, full-time or regular employment elsewhere in the sector. Whilst some may have post-doctoral fellowships which give them the scope and relative financial stability to spend their time pursuing their own independent research and developing their publication profiles, many will be employed in teaching-focused or other roles within the sector which afford little time for the pursuit of independent academic research. This includes those employed on projects led by other academic researchers (classified as ‘Research Assistants’ in the official REF guidance and normally not regarded as eligible for submission to the REF). However, our REF survey shows that a number of institutions are submitting project researchers possibly in contravention of the official guidance rules on eligible ‘independent researchers’.  Moreover, the survey showed many of those working towards REF submission and/or expecting to be included in their institution’s submission are employed on a part-time or fractional basis, whilst doing most of the work on their REF submissions in their own time.  For many such researchers, the paid hours will be to undertake specific duties such as teaching or project research work, with little or no time provided to undertake independent research.

While UCU has concerns about the way in which the official REF guidance categorises researchers working on other academics’ projects as ‘Research assistants’, we do not feel that such researchers (often early careers’ academics) should be put under pressure to produce REF outputs. 

Nevertheless, the reality for early careers’ academics is that ‘REF outputs’ are viewed as essential for getting that important first full-time academic position.  The focus on outputs is not necessarily beneficial for the development of a research career, and creates particularly unreasonable expectations for the many early careers’ researchers who do not have the luxury of stability in employment or income.  While some early career researchers benefit from full time research fellowships which provide them with the financial stability and time to focus wholly on their research and develop their publication profile, many others have been required to make ends meet on a variety of precarious contracts, including hourly paid teaching (sometimes on zero hours contracts) and fixed term contracts for short term research projects, making the production of the necessary outputs rather difficult to achieve.

UCU has campaigned for better job security and career development pathways for early careers researchers.  While we believe the ‘outputs’ assessment of the REF creates unreasonable expectations for early career researchers, the ‘research environment’ element of the assessment does provide some opportunities for UCU local branches and members to put pressure on their institutions to provide improved job security and career development opportunities for them.  Within the ‘research environment’ element of the assessment (constituting 15% of the overall REF assessment) there is a ‘people’ element whereby departments/units are required to demonstrate the extent to which they support all their research staff (not just those being submitted to the REF), including early career researchers and those on fixed-term contracts.   We have thus issued guidance to branches, suggesting that they draw the attention of their institutions to this element in the REF assessment, as part of the broader campaign to improve research career pathways and reverse the increasing casualisation of early careers staff (see

Notwithstanding the opportunities provided by this element of the assessment, the REF remains part of the problem rather than the solution to the increasing pressures facing early careers researchers in the UK, and in terms of the narrowing of their opportunities for entering the profession on a permanent basis.


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