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If you can’t kill it, cure it: a five-point prescription for REF201

  • 12 April 2019
  • By Bill Cooke

A guest blog kindly contributed by Bill Cooke, Professor of Strategic Management at the York Management School, University of York. 

A blog I wrote before the 2014 REF (Research Excellence Framework) had over 10000 downloads from various platforms. In policy terms it was an abject failure – It was called Kill The Ref in Complex Circumstances. Yet REF lives. So, instead, it must be cured, and it behoves even its severest critic to find positive adaptations of this overbearing inquisition. My policy prescriptions here come from inner conversations with myself as a former management consultant, former Director of Research in my department, former Head of Department, former Vice- Chair Research and Publication of the British Academy of Management, as well as being a current Chair in Strategic Management, and a jobbing researcher prone to displacement writing. This, I suppose, is the bureaucrat writing back, and as such is likely to offend every category of REF stakeholder in some way or other.

  1. Each submission published as free open access attracts a bonus REF point. The argument for open-access (OA) is incontrovertible. The top-down mechanisms to ensure it are clumsy and expensive – Gold OA, repositories – and do not actually work in terms of making research more widely available. Adding a REF point for each piece of genuinely free open access work submitted empowers bottom-up, researcher-led commitments to OA overnight- so a ‘1’ becomes a ‘2’, a ‘2’ a ‘3’ and so on. Genuine means published in an outlet where everything is free open-access, and not at all paywalled. The work will still have to stand on its own merits, and free OA outlets are no more or less rigorous than the paywalled. Panels follow an honour code to read the submission, and do not use the journal or press as a proxy when assessing, so no problem there.
  2. UKRI to be REF’d and higher education institutions to be cost discounted. REF measures research outputs, and public money follows for those who do well. However, some of those who do well have also had public money as a research input via the disciplinary research councils of UKRI (UK Research and Innovation), while others have not. To assess UKRI effectiveness, and to avoid double public funding, each UKRI council should be assessed within the REF, submitting research they have funded. Conversely, higher education institutions’ unit of assessment and institutional REF scores and funding should be discounted by the proportion of their full economic cost already funded from the public purse. This would also encourage institutions who see their role as supporting research per se from their own budgets; and discourage those commissioned-research-only campuses from becoming little more than co-working spaces, providing library access, email, and an ethics kitemark as extras.
  3. Vice-Chancellor/CEO departures ‘unlock’ all institutional non-portability rights. Rules on portability are now stacked very much in favour of institutions against individuals. Higher education institutions can claim the work of precarious staff ‘let go’, and of those who choose ‘voluntary’ redundancy, and well as those who leave for whatever other reason. If you are being made redundant, and want more than the meagre statutory entitlement, then you have no choice but to agree to ‘voluntary’ redundancy; and the de facto ‘forced departure’ of colleagues is hardly rare in the sector. Having established this institutional power, Vice-Chancellors can leave their job at any time, mid- or late- REF – without consequence REF-wise, abandoning the REF strategy and plan which they have hitherto led. As redress for the front-line researcher, the institutions they both leave and join should also lose the right to claim the work of colleagues who have likewise left. It is eminently workable – we could for example have a VC transfer window after each REF cycle to let them change jobs then.
  4. Institutions which use journal ‘lists’ or proxy measures of Research Quality will be penalised in their Research Environment assessment. Institutions must indicate whether and how they use any proxy measure of academic quality in their internal management processes, including the selection of papers for REF submission, and in performance appraisal processes. REF panels do genuinely assess submissions on their merits. Lists and proxy guides do prevail in many departments however, and this has eaten away at the role of Deans and Heads of Department as intellectual and academic leaders. Institutions which contract out this leadership – for example, in my field to the University of Texas, Dallas journal ranking or the Chartered Association of Business School list – are entitled to do so; but assessments of their research environment should penalise this leadership lacuna. A confidential survey of research-active staff in each institution, easily done, will technically enable this.
  5. To claim external research impact, higher education institutions must show internal research impact. Claims for externally impactful research lose legitimacy if internal organisational processes are not similarly research-led. Sadly, internal processes are often established despite research showing them to be counterproductive, and worse, harmful, for example to women, BAME, and other excluded groups of colleagues and potential colleagues. These include forms of performance appraisal, course evaluation, and reduction of trust and autonomy in high performance, high commitment organisations. These world class academic mathematicians, statisticians, lawyers, financiers, economists, and actuarial scientists were ignored in the recent USS pension strike, while those with barely a PhD amongst them commanded the action of university leaders. Before they can claim external impact, higher education institutions must show how their own internal practices are research led, with internal-impact case studies. This should be combined with faculty survey data affirming that in their own area of expertise, their university’s practices are ethically and rigorously research-led.

Resistance to change is, of course, a problem in our sector. There will inevitably be problem-staters who will nitpick over my 5 points; but overcoming resistance to change is what leadership is about.

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