UCU survey on the REF

UCU conducted a survey of members in Higher Education (also open to non-members) on the impact of the REF in May-June 2013. The survey was designed to seek the views of academic staff on the impact of the REF on their career development, working conditions and workload, the fairness and transparency of institutional selection procedures, and the overall impact of the REF on the sector as a whole.

Around 7,000 responses were received from staff across academic grades and in 153 Higher Education institutions (HEIs), demonstrating the strength of feeling on the REF among academic staff in the UK.

Responses to the survey reflected long standing concerns within UCU as regards the detrimental impact of the REF on the working conditions and career development of academic staff as well as on the sector as a whole. For the large majority of respondents, delivery of the necessary REF outputs was not possible without working excessive hours.

A large majority viewed the REF as creating unreasonable expectations as regards the research outputs of academic researchers, yet many institutions are clearly linking REF performance to wider performance criteria and possible career detriment.

Appointment to entry-level academic positions and career progression are increasingly tied to fulfilment of REF submission criteria, with many institutions establishing their own quality thresholds for submission. The survey confirms reports that a number of institutions are warning staff that failure to achieve submission criteria could lead to increases in non-research workload, transfer to teaching-focused career pathways, and/or capability procedures that could lead to staff being ‘managed out’ of their institutions or targeted for redundancy. As with the RAE before it, the REF has cultivated a climate within a number of institutions whereby the only research viewed as of value is that able to deliver the necessary REF outputs. Not surprisingly, most respondents viewed the REF as responsible for increasing their stress levels.

For a majority of respondents, the REF remains a flawed process in terms of its impact on the sector and the nature of academic endeavour, with large numbers also critical of the way in which institutions have handled the selection process for REF submissions:

The survey revealed considerable levels of concern regarding the lack of transparency in institutional processes for determining which staff are to be included in the REF submission, the methods used for determining the selection, and the way in which decisions relating to submissions are communicated to the staff concerned. This is notwithstanding the emphasis on the principles of transparency, consistency, accountability and inclusivity in the official REF guidance produced by the funding councils.

With regards to inclusivity and equality considerations, there were also high levels of dissatisfaction regarding the handling of requests for reduced outputs based on individual circumstances. Moreover, a significant proportion of disabled staff viewed the selection process as discriminatory. The disproportionate impact that workload and performance management pressures derived from the REF had on female staff was also notable in the survey responses.

Most respondents did not regard the REF as an accurate indicator of the quality of academic research, viewed its impact on the sector as detrimental, and favoured its replacement by an alternative method for evaluating the quality of research in Higher Education. The largely negative perspectives on the REF were shared by those expecting to be included in their institution’s submission and those expecting to be excluded.

To see the full report click on this link: REF survey report September 2013

Key findings in the survey were as follows:

Perspectives on the REF

  • Over 62% of respondents viewed the REF as creating unreasonable expectations as regards the research output of academic researchers.
  • Over 60% of respondents viewed the REF (and RAEs previously) as having had a detrimental impact on the HE sector.
  • Over half of respondents did not agree that the REF and its predecessor RAE had resulted in an increase in the quality of academic research, and did not view the REF as a good indicator of the quality of academic research being undertaken in HEIs.
  • Over half of respondents felt that the REF should be replaced by an alternative method for evaluating the quality of research emanating from HEIs.
  • Over a quarter of respondents felt that the REF should be abolished and not replaced.

Workload

  • Over two-thirds of respondents, and close to three-quarters of women, felt unable to undertake the necessary work to produce the required REF outputs without working excessive hours.
  • Over a quarter of respondents felt that they did not have enough time to prepare their teaching because of the need to focus on their REF outputs.
  • 29% of respondents found it necessary to work on their REF outputs most evenings, and 31% most weekends, and over a third worked on their outputs during/instead of annual leave.
  • Over 60% of respondents (and more women than men) felt that pressure to meet expectations in relation to the REF had increased their stress levels, and over a third felt that that this pressure had negatively impacted on their health.
  • Close to a quarter of respondents indicated that they undertook half or more of their work on REF outputs outside of normal or reasonable working hours.
  • Of respondents employed on fractional/part-time or hourly paid contracts, over a third indicated that they undertook half or more of their work on REF outputs outside of paid working hours.

Performance Expectations and Career Development

  • A number of institutions are warning academic staff not included in the REF that they face capability procedures, denial of promotion or progression to the next grade, withdrawal of support to undertake research or transfer to a teaching-focused contract.
  • Women were more likely to have been warned about these punitive sanctions than men.
  • Over a fifth of respondents thought it likely that they would be transferred to a teaching-focused contract if they did not perform to institutional REF expectations.
  • Nearly a quarter were concerned that they would lose their job if they did not perform to institutional REF expectations.
  • 45% thought it likely that they would not be supported to undertake research in the future if they were not included in the REF submission.
  • More than one in ten staff in probationary periods had been informed that they would not be confirmed in post if they failed to meet REF expectations.
    • Close to a half of respondents did not feel that their institution/ department provided the professional support needed in order to meet institutional expectations in relation to the REF.

Equality Principles and Discrimination

  • One in ten of all respondents regarded REF selection processes as discriminatory according to one or more protected equality characteristic.
  • One in ten black and ethnic minority respondents regarded their institution’s REF selection process as discriminatory in relation to race.
  • 17% of respondents who identified themselves as disabled regarded their institution’s REF selection process as discriminatory in relation to disability.  One in eight felt they had been personally discriminated against on the grounds of disability.
  • Of those respondents who had made a ‘reduced outputs’ request due to ‘complex’ individual circumstances, two-fifths were dissatisfied with the way it was handled by their institution.

 REF selection processes

  • Over two-fifths of respondents did not view their institution’s REF selection procedures as transparent.
  • Two-fifths also felt that certain types of research are favoured over others in deciding which individuals are to be included in the REF submission, irrespective of academic quality.
  • Over a third of respondents did not feel that evaluations of their outputs made by their institutions with regard to possible inclusion in the REF had been clearly communicated to them.
  • Over a third also disagreed that those involved in the submission decision-making process had the appropriate expertise to make the decision.
  • Over a quarter of respondents indicated that journal rankings were used by their institutions in deciding whether their outputs should be included in the REF submission, despite assurances from the funding councils that these will not be used as a criterion in the assessment of outputs.

To see the full report click on this link: REF survey report September 2013

  5 comments for “UCU survey on the REF

  1. Tom O'Shea
    4 October 2013 at 2:32 pm

    I agree 100% with these findings.
    The QMUL / CCLS management were despicable in conducting this process in a no9n-transparent way with high scores given to friends and others excluded.

    It is an outrageous way to do business and to treat hard-working employees.

    The Question of course is what are you going to do about it?

  2. 6 October 2013 at 10:25 am

    Very few of the problem’s identified here have anything to do with the REF! What you call “REF Outputs” I call “Research” and it is the reason I am in academia rather than teaching school and having the summers off. You could equally say that it is the teaching that is forcing my research to the weekends and evenings. The problem is that I do not have enough administrative assistance to spend a sensible amount of time working at things that actually require my level of education, experience & for that matter salary. UK HE needs to learn the concept of human capital, and to stop paying people £40K a year to make photocopies, edit web pages and fill in expense claims.

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