Why the REF matters to students

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.

NUS has produced a briefing on the REF for its member unions. You can download here.

  3 comments for “Why the REF matters to students

  1. Marc
    11 April 2014 at 10:17 am

    I couldn’t disagree more. Dr Wright seems to forget that research is ultimately about the creation of knowledge. I teach two modules, one which lies outside my research interests and the other one which lies within my research interests. On the former module, I teach what is in the textbook (which was published 5 years ago) and I do not have much else to say. On the latter module, I teach at the cutting edge of research, I am up to date in terms of what is happening in that area and I am generally much more at ease with the material. I also ended writing a textbook based on the material from the latter module. So it is very naive to assume that teaching and research are not related at all.

  2. Adam Wright
    11 April 2014 at 4:50 pm

    Hi Marc.

    I’m a little confused by your response, as my blog is by no means questioning the relationship between research and teaching. When you start by saying that you couldn’t disagree more, which is a strong statement, I had expected you to argue that either my analysis of the effect of the REF on academics/students is incorrect, or perhaps that my reading of the esteem and opportunities attached to teaching were misguided. Yet you appear to have attacked me for something I haven’t commented on directly. At no point did I say that teaching and research are not related; in fact my blog infers the complete opposite. If it would help, let me give you my thoughts on the subject that you raise.

    Where departments, or indeed individual academics, are able to use cutting-edge research in their teaching, this is highly beneficial to students. It makes sense to blend the two together as it provides students with important skills that can help them apply what they have learned.

    In the blog I referred to moves in some institutions to shift some academics on to teaching-only contracts, and in this way separate some teachers from official research responsibilities. First of all, this is not happening everywhere. Second, where it does happen, it does not preclude the possiblilty that an academic not contracted to research is not applying research in their teaching. This is very different from saying that research and teaching are separate, and I would agree that it is naive of someone to think that this is the case.

    I would urge you to read the blog again. I can assure you that I have not forgotten what research is. The people who HAVE forgotten what research is all about are those that try to turn research into a simple commodity (and in doing so commodifying the academic labour that goes into producing it) and try to politically manage it to tick the right boxes, rather than looking at developing knowledge for the good of society. Some would say that this is a direct result of linking research funding to research assessment in its current form, but its also a general problem relating to the competitive market logics at play in higher education and the rise of corporate forms of governance and a pernicious managerialism.

  3. 17 April 2014 at 9:53 am

    Marc. That’s clearly not what’s being said in the article. In the newer universities and ex-Polytechnics it is undoubtedly true that the focus on research brought about by the REF has had a detrimental effect on staff workload and teaching quality. Possibly because in these institutions teaching load was already much higher than in the Russell Group and the more established Red Brick institutions. However, the issue of the relationship between research and curriculum is not as straightforward as you suggest either. The idea that Research is about creating new knowledge which is then taught in under graduate classes arises from the scientific method and I would argue in the sciences has some validity. With the caveat that much cutting-edge scientific research is often highly contested for years and therefore it’s inclusion in the undergraduate syllabus is contingent and may be delayed for years or even decades. But in the Arts and much of the Humanities, aside from historical knowledge, research is actually about creating new opinion about previous opinion, knowledge in any meaningful sense of the word has nothing to do with it. Much research in the arts is interpretive at best and merely informed comment at worst. It is also true that the vast majority of research in the arts is not widely read and does not enter the undergraduate syllabus at all. And I say this as someone who teaches an Arts subject. So, in some of the most popular subjects in universities across the globe, English, Drama, Theatre Studies, Film Studies, Art, Music, etc, etc, most academic research is not about developing new knowledge it is about individual academic career development and the status of institutions within the academic community and this has only a tangential benefit to students at best. At the extremes this leads to the dead-ends of academic movements like Post-Modernism and Critical Theory that exist only and entirely within an academic context, the purpose of research in these areas is ONLY to engage with previous research in these areas, there is almost no relationship with the world beyond academia at all. Thus the knowledge created by that research is merely knowledge about previous research, a closed system that generates little of value to the world at large.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *