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Making sense of today’s #REF21 results: 7 points of note

  • 12 May 2022
  • By Nick Hillman

1. The main feeling for many university staff today will be relief but the process is not over yet. The seven years of work and waiting since the last Research Excellence Framework (REF) results may have finished and, in very many instances, institutions and departments – and beneath it all, therefore, individuals – have done very well. But (sorry) the wait is far from over. We do not yet know how the money that rests on the back of the REF will be distributed, for example, and the answer will be different in different parts of the UK. Nor, given these results will remain our guide for many years, do we know the volume of financial resources that will, over time, be linked to them.

2. Some REF critics may go over the top. The REF has lots of critics. HEPI has given space to some over the years, including in the past week. But criticisms that focus on fine points of process rather than the objectives of the whole thing tend to miss their mark. The goals of the REF include giving policymakers with responsibility for research the evidence they need to persuade their colleagues, including in HM Treasury, of the benefits of decent levels of research funding. As Diana Beech, Chief Executive of London Higher recently wrote: ‘Sometimes the stars will align and there will be someone actively advocating for policy to help our sector. Again, a good example of this from my day was the big push that Dominic Cummings brought with him to Downing Street for blue-skies research and the UK’s “science superpower” ambitions. However, his short tenure and the noticeable absence of “big ticket” science policies since his departure should caution us all away from attaching too much weight to individuals to push policy through.’

3. As research staff, and the professionals who support them, celebrate the successes or lick their wounds, the question of reducing the burdens of research assessment will rear its head, including whether to move to a system that is more based on metrics (like citations). This would be cheaper and is always worth debating, but it would also be less flexible and produce different results. As The Metric Tide (2015) concluded: ‘metrics give significantly different outcomes from the REF peer review process’. While it makes sense to ask constantly whether we have our processes for evaluating research right, and Research England will itself no doubt continue doing this, the grass is not always greener.

4. Comparisons with previous years need a health warning, as noted in today’s HEPI blog by Dinah Birch, who chaired REF Main Panel D on Arts and humanities, and also in by Research England themselves: ‘changes mean the exercise provides a different national picture of research quality, therefore, to its predecessor, limiting the extent to which meaningful comparisons can be drawn’. Every research assessment exercise has a somewhat different methodology and this is definitely true this time, with 46 per cent more staff included, up from 52,000 to 76,000. Pop charts that include streaming services give different results to pop charts based on sales of vinyl and, similarly, one REF process will give different results to another one. So while every institution will be doing year-on-year comparisons, these need to be treated carefully. One thing to watch out for, in particular, is how institutions use the number of staff submitted in how they present their changing faces to the world. This seems to have helped boost the position of the north-east, for example – including the University of Northumbria, as was noted overnight, with their Vice-Chancellor, Andrew Wathey, saying their results now put them ‘clearly into territory formerly the preserve of the Russell Group of universities’.

5. The tension between the golden triangle and the rest of the UK has been confirmed. The results show strength across the UK in institutions of all sizes and every region. According to this morning’s Times Higher coverage, ‘institutions outside London have improved their performance the most, with several Russell Group universities from outside the “golden triangle” of Oxford, Cambridge and London making major gains.’ But the Research Professional ranking still has Oxford, UCL and Cambridge at the top of the tree (just as in 2014). So no one can shy away from the research powerhouses that are the University of Oxford, the University of Cambridge and UCL, and despite the fact that there are also powerhouses outside the triangle too (such as Manchester and Edinburgh). While there is a very strong case for boosting the total amount of funding linked to REF results, for recognising so-called ‘pockets of excellence’ and even for linking research funding to the levelling-up agenda where there is a strong evidence base to do so, the national interest also needs to make sure we do not harm the golden eggs in the golden triangle (to mix my metaphors). Importantly, this is not just about research funding: while the Government spent yesterday fretting about house building targets, no one seemed to point out they have cancelled the Oxford-Cambridge Expressway, which would have supported new housing and new jobs. As I have written before, we do not actually have a golden triangle, we have a golden V because, for example, east-west travel links are so poor.

6. In the run-up to the next election, which could be only 18 months away, we need to hear more about what opposition parties at Westminster think of research assessment. As I recently wrote on the HEPI blog, there are not many votes in tweaking the REF’s processes – especially during a European war and a cost-of-living crisis. But any political party serious about taking office needs to have a view on UK science and research and if they are smart, they can use it to wider electoral advantage, as Harold Wilson did, by wielding it as evidence that you really care about the future economy and the big global challenges. The Labour Party has described the REF as ‘discredited’ and the current Shadow Minister for Science, Research and Innovation, Chi Onwurah, has complained it ‘encourages a cutthroat environment’, calling instead for more ‘strategic direction from the government’ and ‘a more equitable funding formula’. Such comments are both vague and old and, as on funding teaching, we now need to know more about where they and other parties not currently in power stand on the role of research assessment as the next general election hoves into view.

7. Full economic costing needs to be part of the post-REF conversation. I am struck by how, including in HEPI’s own series of blogs on the REF, full economic costing (FEC) – or rather the absence of full economic costing – has not been much discussed. Most funding for research projects, whoever is funding them, does not cover the true costs. As a result, universities need to find cross-subsidises from all sorts of places, including international student fees and of course the Quality related research funding linked to the REF is a core part of this. (We have written two full-length HEPI reports on these challenges, which are here and here.) However, now that even institutions in England (with its relatively high £9,250 fees for home students) lose money on home undergraduates (as has long been in the case elsewhere, such as in Scotland), these students need subsidising too. If teaching home students and research are both underfunded relative to their true costs, then you’ve got a problem. So the number one concern of most vice-chancellors at the moment is how to square this circle. And the end result could be less research. This is shown perhaps most clearly by the one university which, according to Audit Scotland, ‘has made a strategic decision that it will not target further growth in research, because the university deemed it not to be financially sustainable.’

Above all, HEPI is a policy body and we tell our authors to ensure they focus on the consequences of their analysis for policy. So what are the policy consequences of today’s announcements? Some of them need careful consideration in the cold light of day (which is why it takes time to work out how to distribute funding on the back of today’s results, for example). But there are three clear things we should continue to do, as a sector, I believe:

  • remind policymakers, the media and the public just how fantastically good the UK is at research – and not just using the numbers that are making headlines today but also with stories (including from the 6,781 REF Impact Case Studies) on how research transforms lives;
  • provide sensible advice to those in power about how they should interpret today’s data when it comes to the distribution of public funding – including how it links to the levelling-up agenda and the science superpower goal – and this should include reminding them that the total quantum of money matters as well as its distribution; and
  • explain more clearly than we have perhaps to date that underfunding research has consequences that reach beyond research – for example, if policymakers want more focus on the student experience and more focus on research excellence but then underfund both, something has to give.

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