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REF2021: The Research General Election

  • 9 May 2022
  • By Andrew Wathey

This blog was written by Professor Andrew Wathey, Vice-Chancellor and Chief Executive at Northumbria University, Newcastle.

This is the third in a series of blogs reflecting on the REF, following Professor Geoff Rodgers’ blog yesterday which you can read here and Nick Hillman’s blog from Saturday.

By repute, research assessment – once the RAE and now the REF – is the nearest thing to a General Election in higher education, making and unmaking reputations overnight. It is arguably the sector’s best top-level management system, responsible for a huge increase in research effectiveness and the global competitiveness of UK research. At individual, departmental, or institutional level it can be a motor for development. It has made a material difference to individual disciplines, particularly small ones. It is arguably responsible for the creation of the Russell Group (named after meetings in the Russell Hotel, in the wake of disappointing results for Medicine in the 1992 RAE). And it has played a role in extending Research Council coverage across nearly the full range of disciplines.

At the same time, it has not been static. The introduction of impact has shone a light on the economic and social contribution of universities, their role in the task of place shaping, and their potential in (further) levelling up. REF has shown where research has already accelerated education, skills and enterprise agendas, and grown higher education’s broader economic, social and cultural contribution – and indeed where more could be done. Its results have impact internationally, providing the best guide to quality beneath the ice of whole-institution league table rankings. As a UK ‘Michelin Guide’ to where research excellence really lies, it has been valuable in guiding inward investment, and in combatting the use by some overseas agencies of ‘top 20’ lists to filter potential partners.

REF results are important. To take a local perspective, it is already clear from the submission volume data, available within the sector since last summer, that the North East will have the largest city-area grouping of researchers outside London. This will be key in levelling up, inward investment public and private, and economic development more generally – in a region where the policy position of local government is to build economic growth around the research strengths of its universities. Opportunities in new research geographies also beckon, including cross-border collaboration with Scotland. Similar dynamics will be at play in other parts of the UK, too.

Some think that we can dispense with the REF, that over 36 years it has done its job and that we are in a land of diminishing returns. I doubt that. Criticisms that it drives volume at the expense of quality have been disproven. It must be effective and efficient, but it is not expensive relative, for example, to the historic costs of machinery in quality assessment, or other parts of research bureaucracy. As a top-level, externally verified management system, it has an ongoing role that could not be replicated by an institution working alone. It gives us the ability to signal and reward excellence, and to show where the wider impacts of research are focussed. These functions are important, and the need for them will not go away.

But what should change? Four things spring to mind.

  1. First, dispense with environment statements, which are largely weighted to legacy investment.
  2. Secondly, recognise more fully collaboration that leads to local benefit, strengthening places through impacts that contribute to levelling up.
  3. Thirdly, give research culture issues priority, even if there is a challenge in how to assess them: it will be interesting to see if the current consultation produces workable, effective solutions.
  4. Lastly, subject the research budgets distributed across government to the same scrutiny that Quality Related funding sees: some large sums are being spent in quite siloed ways, and the clarity would be refreshing. 

And while all that is being fixed, give some thought to where responsibility for synoptic oversight of the whole of the UK research ecosystem is located. While individuals and entities are doing a great job, there is perhaps more to do to create joined-up, unified purpose and coordinated execution.

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