Dr. Adam Wright, Research and Policy Officer (HE) at the National Union of Students explains why the REF is an issue for students
It often puzzles me why the debates around research assessment and funding so rarely take into account the impact on students. I find it incredibly naïve, perhaps even dangerous, to believe that research assessment and funding to be something that affects only academics and administrators.
“But students don’t care about this, Adam”, they say; “they care about the student experience”. Well yes, of course they care about their experience; but they must also care about the things that affect their experience, right?
Decisions about research are not mutually exclusive from the academic experience that students receive. Put simply, research and teaching are both products of academic labour, so decisions about one will affect the other in the sense that they are both impacting on the work of academic staff.
At UCU Congress last year I gave a talk about the pressures on academic workloads. I argued that the cutthroat culture of research assessment is having a serious impact on the ability of academic staff to perform to the best of their ability in their teaching and supervision. Less time and effort can be spared on things like preparing lectures and classes, and providing supervision and feedback to students. Moreover, I’ve raised concerns that the general mental health and wellbeing of our academic staff is being put at risk.
Beyond the individual workload pressures on academics, we are also seeing changes in the composition of academic roles and the subsequent devaluation of teaching roles. Increasingly, academics deemed unlikely to submit the necessary “REF-able” research are being forced on to teaching-only contracts, whilst other academics considered to be research heavyweights are being brought in to departments on huge salaries purely for their REF submissions and editorial contacts in key journals; they don’t provide any direct teaching to students, and yet cynically may be mentioned in marketing to students to make it appear that prospective students are going to be taught by a well-known academic.
The lack of esteem and reward attached to teaching is becoming a major problem and students should be as concerned as academic staff. UCU’s own research has shown that four out of five academics think teaching-focused roles have a lower status than those which include research, with two in five agreeing that teaching-only contracts have been created at their institution to reclassify staff for the REF.
If the response that institutions have to the REF involves the overburdening of academics as well as the demoralisation of those deemed not “REF-able”, then the indirect impact on the quality of student experience is going to be significant.
We must also not forget that research assessment now has a more direct impact on funding for PGR supervision. The RDP supervision fund is now allocated according to the research quality score of departments in the 2008 RAE.
To say that the REF is not important to students is to assume that a student doesn’t care who teaches them, how much time and effort that person can put into their teaching, or whether that person is being treated fairly by their institution and in a positive frame of mind about the work that they do. Not all of the shortcomings in a student’s academic experience will be the result of institutional decisions about research assessment, but if students were more aware of the intense pressures that their lecturers were under, they might direct more of their criticism further up the chain at those pulling the REF strings.