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Research for All: the REF and its outcomes should benefit the whole university community and especially students

  • 30 September 2022
  • By Andrew Linn

This blog was kindly provided by Professor Andrew Linn, Pro Vice-Chancellor for Research at the University of Westminster.

On 19 May 2022 I wrote a blog for HEPI, reflecting on the recently-announced results of the Research Excellence Framework (REF2021). The question then was whether it had been a good REF and what we might mean by a ‘good REF’ in the context of external comms teams fervently trumpeting the excellence of every institution’s research outputs, impact and / or environment. Pleasing though the outcome for the University of Westminster most certainly was, our REF results were not a news headline; they were part of a story.

Support and the development of our internal community of researchers had enabled valuable impact on people’s lives and aspirations externally, on our doorstep in London and globally. My assessment back in the spring was that ‘above all, REF was good for us because it recounts our narrative [of making a difference to people’s lives]; it is an unforced version of that narrative.’

Since then, the next chapter of the REF saga has been written. In the record-breaking heat of early August 2022, when much of higher education was on holiday, Research England quietly unfurled the hotly-anticipated but frigidly-styled Formula-based funding allocations to higher education providers, including the so-called Quality-Related (QR) research grants based on the REF results. Following the announcement in July 2022that the total QR allocation would increase by 10 per cent from £1.789 billion in 2021/2022 to £1.974 billion for 2022/2023, institutions were hungrily anticipating meatier slices of the pie.

Increases have not been universal, and they have been various, not least regionally, with universities in the North-East of England seeing an average increase of 23 per cent and North-West institutions 21 per cent. Greater QR prosperity in the North of England contrasts with five per cent increase on average for London institutions. Here at Westminster, however, we have seen a 48 per cent increase to £6.5 million per annum. This is still small beer compared to some of our London neighbours, but it allows us to embark on our Being Westminster 2022-2029 strategy with confidence and renewed ambition, opening the next chapter in our REF story with a flourish.

The question I’m now being asked as we embark on this new chapter is: who will benefit from our additional QR funding? The detailed grant tables circulated by Research England on 20 September give us the fine detail, but the proper answer to the question is that everyone should be able to benefit from our research. The institution must benefit from our insights and discoveries, and all colleagues must be able to gain inspiration from the debates, workshops and seminars going on around them. Research at Westminster is to be shared, not jealously guarded, and this democratic commitment applies above all to our students.

In response to my earlier HEPI blog, Arti Kumar MBE commented, ‘I was hoping to see evidence that the values and outcomes of research actually filter down into practice and make a real-life impact in students’ experiences of learning and development’. I couldn’t agree more. In a modern university, research is not the preserve of those with a research contract. All our students from the moment they join the University are part of the research community as they set about discovering new things and developing the tools to do that, acquiring skills and techniques which employers will value and reward. Being members of a research institution, students have access to research resources, physical, digital and human, and the latter includes the wider research community of technicians, librarians and other professionals.

One of the recommendations in the June 2022 report by the British Academy, The Teaching-Research Nexus, produced by a working group including my Westminster colleague Dr Matthew Charles, is:

Institutions could develop more effective strategies for effectively communicating the reciprocal relationship between teaching and research to their students, at all levels of study, indicating a productive means of working in partnership with students.

We have, in fact, already articulated a Strategic Approach to Research and Education at the University of Westminster (May 2022) to clarify the mutual impact research and teaching have on each other, rather than the binary of research-led teaching/ teaching-led research. Achieving such a vision requires investment and commitment. We are grateful to the Quintin Hogg Trust, who have provided £500,000 over two years to support projects to develop students as researchers and agents of knowledge exchange, living out the REF definition of research as ‘a process of investigation leading to new insights, effectively shared’.

The British Academy report suggests that:

teaching and research are increasingly being pulled apart as activities … Surveys conducted for this project show that the connection between teaching and research is being placed under increasing pressure and, in some instances, completely severed.

Additional QR funding in support of a clear strategy is one way to mend this broken link, but for me it is more than just reopening the pipeline between teaching and research. We have an opportunity to ensure that students are beneficiaries of all aspects of our research community, and that our research is something everyone can be proud of, benefit from and enjoy. In the modern university, research is not a private act observed in the laboratory, library or classroom; it is for everyone.

HEPI’s latest report, Research Evaluation: Past, present and future, is available here.

HEPI, in conjunction with the UPP Foundation and the University of Sussex, is hosting an event at the Conservative Party Conference on ‘Student Access and Success: What works?’ For further information, and for details of our recent event at the Labour Party Conference, see the Events page of the HEPI website here.

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