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REF2029: People, Culture and Environment in Small Specialist Institutions

  • 29 April 2024
  • By Emma Wakelin
  • This HEPI blog was kindly written by Emma Wakelin, Pro Vice-Chancellor for Research & Innovation at the Royal College of Art. (X/Twitter: @Emma_Wakelin)
  • This piece is the latest in a series of HEPI blogs discussing REF2029. In March, we heard from the Executive Chair of Research England, Dame Professor Jessica Corner: you can read her piece here.

Since the first hint last year of proposed changes to key parts of the next Research Excellence Framework (REF2029), many in the sector have been eagerly awaiting further details. Working in a small, specialist institution, I welcome the proposed shift in REF2029 away from the existing Environment Statement narrative and data approach and towards a broader focus on assessing the ‘people, culture and environment’ that support a university’s research. This changed balance is healthy – moving away from assessing an institution’s research environment in terms of its research strategy, doctoral student numbers, and research income, facilities and collaborations – and placing greater weight on an assessment of the broader conditions in which that research takes place. If done well, this new approach could incentivise a supportive and inclusive approach to research culture and research careers across the board. Rather than focussing attention, and institutional resource, mainly on the performance of high-achieving individuals or teams, some of that attention now turns to how well an institution supports, nourishes and empowers its staff engaged in research, and how that creates the conditions for stronger research and impact across the sector.

The key point for me has always been that an exercise designed to identify high-quality research needs to recognise that this looks and behaves differently in different disciplines and in different institution types. From the perspective of a small specialist creative arts institution, the REF can feel as though it was designed on a model that does not quite fit the way we work, making it hard for us to demonstrate how our research can meet high standards of excellence with impact.

In a REF roundtable discussion for small specialist institutions organised by the REF Steering Group in November 2023, we ran through some of the standard ways in which creative, particularly practice-based creative research, differs from other disciplines: research tends not to take place in large, externally-funded teams; it tends not to be presented, or not solely, in the form of journal articles; and citation metrics are therefore not a meaningful indicator of research excellence.

What surprised me in that meeting, however, was the high degree of consensus between the specialist creative and performing arts institutions and the small specialist medical, veterinary and agricultural institutions. There is minimal disciplinary overlap between these groups, but the one thing we share is a faculty that includes a very high proportion of staff who have flourishing careers in professional practice alongside their university teaching and research roles. This distinctive feature is an important factor in the character of the research environment and culture in many small specialist institutions. It means that the research being undertaken in these institutions is typically characterised by a strong sense of real-world application, of research stimulated by external challenges and situations rather than arising from a theoretical question whose findings might then be applied at a later stage of external engagement and impact. To be clear, these ways of working are not the sole preserve of small specialists, and no quality judgement is implied about the relative merits of different types of institutions and disciplines of research – the key point, rather, is to illustrate the range of approaches that make up the UK’s research landscape. Research excellence, and the research cultures that support it, comes in all shapes and sizes and does not adhere to a single model. Indeed, the health of our research ecosystem as a whole depends on this diversity. We must bear this in mind when we have the chance, as we now do, to develop a new assessment framework, and aim to construct a set of measures that enable excellence to be demonstrated and recognised in all its glorious variety. 

I referred above to ‘staff engaged in research’, rather than ‘academic staff’, because an increased focus on research culture and environment also provides a chance to capture the role and value not only of the academic staff, at all career stages, who undertake research in an institution, but also those staff in other teams who play an equally vital role. Chief among these are the technicians and other ‘support’ roles who make good research possible, and this will be the subject of a forthcoming HEPI blog by Dr Juliana Rinaldi-Semione of Nottingham University.

Other points on which, as a set of small specialist institutions, we were agreed in relation to the proposed new People, Culture and Environment (PCE) assessment include:

  • Ensuring that small specialist institutions that submit to a single UoA (Unit of Assessment) do not have to try to disentangle their UoA and institutional-level provision and activity, but are able to capture their whole-institution approach in a single reporting and narrative framework.
  • Designing a PCE assessment framework that acknowledges there is more than one model of a successful research culture, and of successful research career support.
  • The PCE metrics and date required for REF2029 must be proportionate, and not confuse volume and quantity with quality, nor size with effectiveness and fitness for purpose.
  • Capturing and acknowledging the deep connection between professional practice and research excellence that exists across our disciplines, and informs the way research takes place – an engaged research practice that forms a bridge between academic institutions and the world beyond. Let’s ensure we appoint REF panellists who are well-equipped with the skills and experience to recognise and assess these rich and complex environments.
  • Research ethics and integrity, and support for research career development, are for life, not just for REF – but let’s ensure the PCE framework can assess the variety of ways in which, and scales on which, universities deliver this, without reducing evidence to a list of concordats and tick-boxes.

In short, let’s ensure REF2029 can value and celebrate the full range of the UK’s ecosystem of global research excellence, from its large research-intensives to its small specialists. The UK’s small specialist institutions encourage and welcome a REF that aims to be genuine and effective in identifying excellence in research, in researchers, and in the cultures and environments that support those, wherever these might be found.

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