Why the REF is bad for the very idea of the university

How the fate of interdisciplinary research discloses the ways in which universities have responded to REF in a way that breaches HEFCE regulations and, more importantly, how the REF has betrayed the very notion of the university. By Paolo Palladino.

In my experience as a teacher, the vicissitudes of personal circumstance can sometimes convey understanding of the collective predicament more effectively than any systematic review. Let me then adopt this approach to think about the REF and what it is doing to British universities. So, I have been a proud member of the Department of History at Lancaster University since 1996, and I have served as its Head of Department at a particularly difficult moment in its history. Disappointingly, I also count among the number of colleagues within the Department and across Lancaster University whose research has not been included in the institutional submission for REF2014. My publications, it seems, were not of the ‘high quality’ (REF2014 Staff Notification) that Lancaster University requires for inclusion in its submission. This said, I have been very exercised both about the terms and manner of the exclusion, and about the measures introduced to ensure that I will be included in any institutional submission for REF2020. Consequently, I have refused to partake in the officially sanctioned mechanisms of appeal and have opted instead to challenge the culture of silence and secrecy surrounding exclusion by writing an open letter to the Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences and the Vice-Chancellor of Lancaster University.[1] The gist of my letter and my subsequent public interventions has been that Lancaster University once enjoyed a wholly enviable, internationally acknowledged reputation as an outstanding centre of interdisciplinary research, but exclusions such as my own attest to the waning institutional support for such research. This situation, I have also argued, is driven by the structural organization of REF2014 and calls into question the meaning of ‘academic freedom’ not just within Lancaster University, but across British universities more generally, thus testing all those of us who still believe that a reflective culture, which universities are supposed to cultivate, is essential to sustaining belief in the possibility of creating a better world.

 

Firstly, unlike many of my colleagues, I regard the evaluation of research as a perfectly legitimate aspect of academic life, and I also think that academic managers are at liberty to mobilize academic assets in a manner that maximizes the returns of a university’s investments in staff and resources. I think nonetheless that the situation in which I now find myself is an indictment of the Department of History, the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, and Lancaster University. The internal preparations for REF2014 have rewarded disciplinary orthodoxy by resting upon the subjective evaluations of a single reader per Unit of Assessment and by expecting that each member of staff returned should fit within the narrative of one of the Units of Assessment submitted, in my case, either History or Sociology. This is the inevitable consequence of the drive to reduce the mounting costs of national research assessment exercises and our collective refusal to countenance the adoption of metrics, all of which has resulted in the devolution of responsibility for the containment of these costs onto the universities. In this straitened context, it has not proved possible to accommodate a researcher whose output is ‘recognised internationally in terms of originality, significance and rigour’ (Grade 2), but whose work cuts across the domains of a number of Units of Assessment and so must, in all likelihood, fall short of the most common assumptions about what constitute the ‘highest standards of excellence’ (Grade 4) for each and every Unit of Assessment involved. I hasten to add that I was promoted to a personal chair just two years ago, thus marking internal recognition that I was an internationally recognized, outstanding scholar in my own field of expertise, a judgment reached by an international panel and on the basis of the same portfolio of publications that is now found wanting. I have protested that acceptance of this situation calls into question Lancaster University’s commitment to supporting interdisciplinary research, the one asset that has served most successfully to distinguish Lancaster University in an increasingly competitive global market for higher education. Perhaps unsurprisingly and wholly predictably, neither the Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, nor the Vice-Chancellor of Lancaster University has seen fit to respond to my argument. Sadly, it also turns out that colleagues at the Universities of Aberdeen and Warwick share my concerns about the fate of interdisciplinary research, and that my analysis agrees with the views expressed by the refreshingly frank Pro-Vice Chancellor for Research and Enterprise at the University of Leicester. None of this, it seems, changes anything. I do realize, of course, that many of our colleagues are less than sanguine about the importance of interdisciplinary research and its urge to call into question disciplinary orthodoxies, so that there has been no great outcry. This response overlooks, however, how the fate of such endeavours to question everything is a test of the extent to which universities have been exercising choices that, contrary to all public statements, have not been based on judgments of quality. Panels are organized along disciplinary lines and far more tightly than ever was the case under the RAE. In these circumstances, all institutions interested in maximizing their returns cannot but seek to exclude any research output that might be regarded as not fitting securely within the confines of disciplinary narratives and their orthodoxies, and especially so when the rules governing the reporting of impact call for the most careful consideration of the number of staff returned. The phrase ‘strategic considerations’ is often used to describe the consequent evaluation of the costs and benefits of inclusion, but it cannot be admitted so explicitly because the regulations issued by HEFCE do not allow exclusion on any grounds other than a judgment of quality. As such the fate of interdisciplinary research, which all champion, but none are prepared to defend with more than just bland platitudes, offers an unparalleled witness to games universities are playing with the mechanisms introduced to secure a more effective distribution of public funding of research.

 

Secondly, it is tempting to think that these difficulties are temporary and will eventually be resolved. Such expectations overlook, however, the enormous cost of the process of preparation for REF2014 such that the structures established for the purpose will not be dismantled, and are likely instead to become part of a continuous process of assessment, conducted, just like the periodic reviews of teaching, by intra-mural mechanisms of ‘quality assurance’. Even more importantly, unlike the RAE, decisions about exclusion from REF2014 have not been a matter of academic deliberation alone, but have involved departments of the human resources. Because ‘academic staff are expected to high quality research outputs as part of their academic role’, exclusion cannot but call compliance with contractually agreed terms of employment into question. Thus, despite all the reassurances that ‘there will not be any contractual changes or instigation of formal performance management procedures solely on the basis of not being submitted for REF2014’, I think that we must all think very seriously about future conditions and security of employment. In fact, I am increasingly convinced that we must expect rising numbers of cases of appeal against ‘constructive dismissal’ across British universities. At Lancaster University, for example, Heads of Department have already been ‘advised’ to take responsibility for the annual Professional Development Reviews of excluded staff, and, as I have tried to explain to my Head of Department and my Dean of Faculty, this already breaches the agreement reached between the UCU and Lancaster University over the treatment of staff not returned because that staff is treated differently and, in my case, the treatment can only amount to insistence that I bring my research in line with the requirements of the discipline, so infringing upon my ‘academic freedom’. More importantly, however, the staff targeted must improve on its arguably lamentable record of publications and seek to secure greater research income. Absent external income, the former will require call on the much-diminished internal funds for research that will be allocated by HEFCE, in proportion to the outcome of REF2014. It is important to observe that we now enter the Open Access regime, so that there will be a direct cost to publication, and that, as research councils move toward greater selectivity, applications will be subjected increasingly to internal review and selective institutional support. Consider the position of any manager of research portfolios and whose bids for internal funds they are most likely to support, especially now that, thanks to the devolution of the preliminary phases of assessment, they are in the position to make an objective distinction between the research capacity of different staff and according to scoring unknown to the staff involved. It is often forgotten that this was not possible previously. In this insidious context, excluded staff will be the subject of increased monitoring to improve performance, and under conditions in which they will be at a disadvantage compared to other staff. I think that there are grounds for charging that this amounts to the manufacture of the kind of ‘intolerable’ situation that will surely drive members of staff to resign, especially now that funds to negotiate voluntary agreements have dried up.

 

Significantly, my Head of Department, like his peers in many other institutions, has been and still is very supportive. I have valued greatly his reassurances that I remain an active and valued contributor to the departmental research portfolio, and that the terms of the letter informing me about my exclusion were ‘mistaken’ because my exclusion was in fact on ‘strategic grounds’. I have asked nonetheless for formal confirmation that I am not failing to meet any of my responsibilities as a member of the Department of History. I have also asked for confirmation that, in future years, the balance of my teaching, research and administration, as reflected in the workload allocation model, will not be outwith departmental norms, and that I will continue to benefit from the mechanisms within the Department of History and the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences to support the engagement of individual staff in academic research and bids for external funding. No formal acknowledgment or response to the request has yet been received. I have spoken to my Head of Department about this and all that he could do was to smile knowingly about the absurdity of our predicament. In the meantime, my sense is that what will happen next, and, in some sense, this is already happening within the research councils and related charities, is that interdisciplinary research will be conflated evermore with multidisciplinary research, so that collaboration between academics in different disciplines will be regarded as delivering ‘interdisciplinary’ inquiry. There are far from insignificant costs to this semantic transformation because the individual scholar thus ceases to be the site of interdisciplinary inquiry and testing of the foundations upon which each discipline rests. Exercises such as REF are deceptive because what they reward is that which is familiar and conforms to the most widely shared expectations of what counts as knowledge, not that which challenges us to think deeply about who we are and what we do. In so doing, these exercises fail to live up to the very idea of the university and its one unflinching command to each one of us, to ‘dare to think’. I leave it to you to consider what might be the long-term implications of the failure to encourage such critical reflection among those students we are called upon to prepare for the challenge of creating a more just and more humane society.

 

 

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