This blog was written by Professor Andrew Linn, Pro Vice-Chancellor for Research at the University of Westminster.
‘How did REF go?’ That is the question higher education leaders are all asking each other in May 2022. It’s an odd question, rather like ‘How was the football?’ Well, seeing as you ask, we had a good REF at the University of Westminster, thanks. Top four for Impact in three of our 13 submissions. Fifth overall for Art and Design, and the top post-1992 university for Politics and International Studies. In 11 of our units of submission to the Research Excellence Framework we made significant improvements in our Environment score, and with 93 per cent of our English submission rated three-star / four-star (‘world-leading’ or ‘internationally excellent’), we were ranked higher than a famous old university in the North East of England. These are pleasing isolated statistics, the likes of which university comms teams have been gluing together since 9 a.m. on the morning of Monday 9 May, but do they add up to evidence of a good REF?
Westminster had a good REF in 2014 too. We included half the number of FTE submitted this time round, but =66/128 institutions was a comfortable landing for a new University. In the meantime, however, the University has faced its challenges, not least the need to achieve significant savings. This resulted in many colleagues leaving the University in the 2017-18 academic year, including several of the ‘big hitters’ from REF 2014. This process also involved a wholesale restructure, including the removal of the Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Research and Enterprise) role and the collapse of the infrastructure for research support. So, mid-REF-cycle, like the king’s horses and men of the nursery rhyme, we were putting research Humpty Dumpty together again.
Rebuilding involved consulting widely across the institution to understand what makes Westminster special and what colleagues believed to be our fundamental principles. Wherever we turned, the message kept coming back that what we do is make a difference to people’s lives. The Royal Polytechnic Institution was founded at 309 Regent Street in 1838 to realise the philosophy of its founder, Sir George Cayley, that the spread of knowledge should not be confined to the elite, but should be accessible to the general public, and this Polytechnic heritage looms large in the Westminster imaginary. Further consultation and assessment of our performance demonstrated (again pretty uncontroversially) that the difference we make lies within four research communities: Arts, Communication & Culture; Diversity & Inclusion; Health Innovation & Wellbeing; and Sustainable Cities & the Urban Environment. We have subsequently committed to focusing our support and investment in these broad fields.
Our current research strategy as of 2018 is entitled Strategy for Research Support and Development, focusing squarely on enabling our people to thrive, via new researcher development and mentoring programmes, new research leader appointments across the University, and capitalising on our excellent support for postgraduate researchers, evidenced via the Advance HE Postgraduate Experience Survey. This activity is managed by a new Research and Knowledge Exchange Office, constructed on lean lines and providing only those functions we need to do the things we are committed to, including a new Researcher Development Officer and Research Impact Officer.
We are fortunate at Westminster to have a Vice-Chancellor supportive and respectful of the research endeavour, and we have been fortunate to have a REF lead and wider academic team working on the REF who were equally supportive and respectful. Above all, however, REF was good for us because it recounts our narrative – it is an unforced version of that narrative. Our deep-seated values, making a difference to lives, mean that our priority has been to support our own community (Environment) and improve lives beyond our Community (Impact), and these will continue to be our priorities as we embark on our new seven-year strategy at Westminster.
In 2014, 40 per cent of our Impact Case Studies in the field of Business and Management Studies submitted to the REF were deemed to be of three-star / four-star quality. In REF2021, 100 per cent were found be of that level. The case studies in question include: Celebrating and Empowering Women in Construction; Making the Transition to a Green Economy; The Value of Further Education in Social Mobility; and An Evidence-Based Approach to Diversity and Inclusion. This recognition suggests that REF is catching up with Westminster values, which are increasingly the values of our society.
This post is part of a series of blogs reflecting on the REF. The full list of blogs in the series can be found here.
I was hoping to see evidence that the values and outcomes of research actually filter down into praxis and make a real-life impact in students’ experiences of learning and development, enabling them to transition into life beyond their studies with the values and competencies they want and need.