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REF-eree! They think it’s all over. It is – for now

  • 18 December 2014
  • By Nick Hillman

This blog post argues:

  • the REF process has been run smoothly and complaints about the principle of research evaluation do not typically extend to the way the process has been run;
  • the improvements in the UK’s research performance in REF2014 are not surprising but could lead to greater concentration of funding, with important regional effects outside of the golden triangle – unless the research budget is increased; and
  • the academic community will be grateful to have the new information on impact when the 2015 spending review takes place.

It also provides the first information on the 2015 Hepi Research Conference.

REF2014

Phew! The REF is over and the results are out. Although the £s won’t be assigned until next year, there’s little anyone can do about the whole process now. Institutions and departments are busy comparing themselves to one another and Hefce can take a well-earned Christmas break.

The REF is a peer-reviewed assessment of the quality of research in UK higher education institutions. It is the biggest exercise of its type anywhere in the world. The new results cover the work of over 50,000 researchers in more than 150 higher education institutions. They incorporate the first assessment of its type on the impact of the UK’s research on the world outside universities – on the economy, society, culture, public policy and services, health, the environment and quality of life.

The whole REF process is controversial among some academics, but it is more popular among university managers for the information (and funding) it provides. For now, it’s worth dwelling on how well Hefce have operated the whole process, which is an enormous feat. Politicians might be responsible for the existence of the REF, but the actual details are set by academics and the process is governed by the funding councils – not by Whitehall. While you hear complaints about the way research is assessed and indeed the whole concept of the REF, you don’t hear complaints about the operation of the process, which is a great tribute to all those who have worked on it at Hefce and elsewhere.

Money

The results matter partly because of what they tell us about our national strengths but also because they will determine what proportion of the funding councils’ research spending (currently running at roughly £2 billion a year) each institution will receive in future years – though we have to wait util 2015 for the full calculation of that, as it is not yet set in stone.

In an oddly-timed announcement, the Government yesterday announced a review of the other main research funding source – the research councils. So, despite the uncertainty over who will receive what, the stable multi-year Quality-Related research funding provided by Hefce and the other UK funding councils on the back of the REF looks particularly valuable today.

The new results confirm the world-leading position of the UK’s research community and reflect strength in depth and breadth. I visit universities most weeks and, during 2014, asked almost every one I went to how they expected to do in the REF. Without exception, they told me they thought they would do better than in the last assessment, so I’m not surprised the results show an improvement in the overall quality of research since 2008. (One reason why it’s not surprising is that institutions collectively submitted a very similar number of researchers to last time.)

But we don’t yet know if the funding that is attached to the REF results will increase in line with the increase in quality suggested by the results. Given the spending pressures and the likelihood of continuing austerity after the next election, it’s by no means certain (to say the least). If there were to be no more money on the table, despite the increase in quality, we would see an increase in research concentration, which could have some dramatic regional effects outside of the so-called golden triangle.

Impact is controversial and some people opposed its inclusion in REF2014. Because those submitting impact case studies were undertaking a new exercise, they didn’t have precedents on which to base their work, which made it a tricky process. Some of the impact results might surprise people. But my hunch is that, come next summer and the spending review, many academics will be pleased there is such clear evidence to show the Treasury on the hard benefits of UK research.

Rankings

The REF data will help everyone who cares about league tables and provide grist to the mill for those who hate them. (Some research groups gave a foot in both camps, as I found when walking past signs in the Institute of Education boasting of their position as number one in the world for educational research while on my way to a seminar on the problems with rankings.)

League tables are already floating about based on the data, with some clear winners and losers. Universities’ PR teams will be drafting letters to policymakers, alumni and others either to highlight success or to explain why the figures are better than they might at first appear. There are some many ways to read the data and, as we don’t yet know exactly how the money will be distributed, any rankings should be seen as a moving game that will not crystallise for some months.

Internationalisation

The REF is one of those things that typically looks better from outside the UK than within. We can all suggest improvements, but it’s worth remembering that, when you visit higher education specialists abroad, they are routinely jealous of the rich data and clear incentives the UK system has, which has protected and strengthened the quality of our research base. That’s why Hefce is already looking at the next stage and wondering whether the scheme can be internationalised.

Hepi’s 2015 Research Conference

These are the sorts of issues that will be discussed at Hepi’s Research Conference at the Royal Society on 31st March 2015, with the title ‘Reflections on REF2014 – Where next?: Research Assessment and Funding from 2014 to 2020 and beyond’.

On the agenda will be lessons from REF2014, impact, metrics, spending and the future of research assessment. We’ll be advertising the event more fully early in 2015, so save the date and keep your eyes peeled.

HEPI University Partners will each have one free place at the conference. If you’d like more information now, please email Hepi’s Development Director, Sarah Isles, at s.isles@hepi.ac.uk.