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People, Culture and Environment in REF 2029: join the journey

  • 21 March 2024
  • By Jessica Corner

In the Summer of 2023, we launched the Initial Decisions for the Research Excellence Framework.  In December 2023, in response to input to our Initial Decisions consultation, we published a series of conclusions and importantly included an extension of the assessment period until 2029 to allow more time for institutions to prepare for changes. We have recently published our revised timetable.

We invited further comments on the proposal to expand the People, Culture and Environment (PCE) element of the exercise. While input received from the community endorsed the expanded element, concerns over how best to design this aspect of the assessment have been raised, along with a strong desire to pilot approaches, and for careful and thoughtful selection of indicators so that they do not also impose additional burden on institutions or create unintended behaviours or hierarchies.

The Research Excellence Framework has always been developed in collaboration with the sector, as a shared endeavour where concerns are settled and best-fit solutions are found through iterative dialogue. I talk about that principle in a blog I wrote for Wonkhe in late 2023.

In line with our approach to co-creation with the sector, and responding to the input we have received, we announced, in January, that following the extension to the process for the next REF, the four higher education funding bodies had agreed to run a PCE pilot. This pilot is to test the indicators we have commissioned Technopolis and CRAC-Vitae to co-create with the community.

The creation of indicators

People, Culture and Environment indicators will be co-developed with the whole research sector and this will take careful account of variation in subjects, disciplines and different institutional types.

The Technopolis CRAC-Vitae project is building on the input we received from the community roundtables we held through the autumn of last year, and written comments provided on the opportunities and challenges of our proposed approach.

Ten workshops are planned, covering areas such as research strategy and leadership; research integrity and open research; equality, diversity and inclusion; and collegiality, belonging and healthy research environments. There will also be a survey gathering input from across the sector on the development of people, culture and environment indicators.

To minimise the burden on the sector, the pilot will focus on the development and assessment of indicative submissions from a limited number of units of assessment. However, the opportunity to engage in the creation of indicators and assessment processes is for the whole sector.

The design of the pilot

Our aim is to co-design the people, culture and environment assessment process with the whole research community. We want to be inclusive in our engagement, selecting a broad range of institutions to be involved, and a wide range of experience from individuals on the assessment panels.

Our intention is to represent the breadth of the UK research sector in terms of institutional size, mission, disciplinary focus and research intensity. And of course, we want to capitalize on the strength of community interest in engaging with the pilot. We are designing the processes for the pilot to allow as much real-time sharing and sector-wide learning as possible. We will be transparent about the processes used for submission and assessment, gathering broad sector feedback as we go.

The development of the framework for the pilot has been complex. In designing it the REF 2029 Team has been balancing the potential burden on the community with the need for us to understand the differences in how the process will work for different types of institutions and different disciplinary communities.

With that in mind, the units of assessment that will be involved in the pilot have been selected to incorporate a range of institution and submission types across the four Main Panels and provide insight into the broad approach to assessment of PCE in the REF 2029 exercise:

  • Allied Health Professions, Dentistry, Nursing and Pharmacy (UoA 3)
  • Biological Sciences (UoA 5)
  • Earth Systems and Environmental Science (UoA 7)
  • Computer Science and Informatics (UoA 11)
  • Business and Management Studies (UoA 17)
  • Social Work and Social Policy (UoA 20)
  • History (UoA 28)
  • Music, Drama, Dance, Performing Arts, Film and Screen Studies (UoA33). 

Our aim is to ensure that a realistic approach is taken to the pilot assessment to explore the feasibility of conducting a rigorous assessment of PCE in REF 2029 while capturing the different approaches to supporting PCE across the sector.

Opportunities to get involved

The REF 2029 People, Culture and Environment Pilot will focus on the processes involved for institutions in using indicators, and the assessment that the indicators will support. We invite wide involvement and participation in the process.

We now have three opportunities for you to join us on the people, culture and environment pilot journey:

  1. The workshops to co-create the PCE indicators will shortly be announced. Topics, dates and details of how to get involved will be available on the project team’s website
  2. Our process for Higher Education Institutions to participate in the pilot is now live.
  3. We will shortly be opening our process to for applications to join pilot PCE panels. 

Minimising burden

This is the beginning of an exciting phase in the development of REF 2029. We are very much looking forward to developing our thinking on the assessment of people, culture and environment, and we are committed to finding an approach that will be robust, transparent and workable for the sector with regard to the levels of effort required.

We are aware that participation in REF 2029 carries a burden and we are committed to keeping the level of effort required to participate in the exercise to manageable levels. We are particularly conscious that the introduction of new elements in the assessment carries a start-up cost, and that this can have a disproportionate effect on smaller institutions. One of the objectives of the pilot exercise is to gather information from participants on the level of effort required in the preparation of PCE submissions and in their assessment. This will inform our thinking on the likely scale-up costs for REF 2029, and on how we can best minimise these. This is a high priority for our co-design approach as we shape the management of national research assessment, balancing the opportunity for automation through the REF2029 programme, with institutions’ and disciplines’ wish for local oversight.

With my colleagues from the four funding bodies, we look forward to this next phase of development for REF 2029 and welcome all to join in this opportunity.

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  1. Professor Sarah Fidment says:

    I would very much be interested in getting involved in this project if individual preference can be put forward.

  2. Joseph says:

    The whole REF concept is a waste of time. The burden is not “at manageable levels” and it obviously does produce a whole lot of unintended behaviors that are nothing to do with improving research in UK institutions.

    Maybe we should copy the most successful higher education sector in the world, the US, and do what they do to measure the research of “units of assessment” (which are not real things). Oh wait, they don’t do anything like the REF.

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