Academics think REF encourages game-playing, national survey suggests

UKRI-commissioned research into the perceptions of the REF ahead of an ongoing review found that 85% of academics think universities try to game the exercise

A real-time review of the Research Excellence Framework (REF) has found that researchers have “mixed opinions” about the 2021 exercise.

The independent review was commissioned by UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) on behalf of all four UK higher education funding bodies.

Academics were broadly positive about the role of the REF in increasing open research – such as ensuring published work and evidence is widely available. They also thought the framework encourages researchers to maximise the societal impact of their work, which was also perceived as a positive change. Those surveyed also felt the REF had increased the quantity of research produced in universities.

But negative associations tempered these positive opinions and, on the whole, “the burden of the REF is perceived to outweigh the benefits”, the review concluded.

Eighty-five per cent of academics complained of game-playing. Examples cited include universities exaggerating research impact, moving staff to teaching-only contracts and hiring staff that have already produced “REF-able” publications while sidelining researchers that had not.

The perception among researchers is that the REF has undermined the “novelty” and “authenticity” of UK research. According to respondents, universities are less likely to pursue “risky blue sky research” or encourage researchers to pursue their academic interests. They also feel the framework’s metrics discourage interdisciplinarity, further undermining the authenticity and uniqueness of new studies. Many senior leaders felt the framework was unnecessarily bureaucratic – and mid-career academics tended to think the REF had overcome research “to become a target in and of itself”.

The review included a survey of more than 3,000 researchers, a longitudinal survey of 146 academics at four UK universities over several months, focus groups with senior managers and one-to-one interviews with 19 institutional leaders. The project asked respondents for their opinions between October 2020 and January 2021, just as the REF deadline drew near.

However, academics broadly felt the 2021 framework was better than its 2014 predecessor.

It is interesting to note the range of views, which are often divided along disciplinary lines or career stages
– Steven Hill, Research England

Academics thought the REF results could continue to serve useful functions in UK HE: creating accountability, an evidence base for new priorities and benchmarking were, generally, welcomed uses of assessment scores. But the majority thought future REFs should no longer determine how much quality-related (QR) funding to award institutions. Several senior leaders complained the exercise aligned to the league tables and failed to recognise a variety of good-quality research in less research-intensive universities.

Reporting its findings, research organisation RAND Europe said it uncovered “a lot” of misconceptions about the framework “as well as ‘myths’ through which academics misinterpret the REF and its rules”. Academics rarely said the REF had negatively affected them, their research or contract. “This discrepancy may reflect a disconnect between reported changes perceived to be happening to academics elsewhere and real changes that academics have experienced,” RAND Europe suggested.

The results suggest that academics from the arts and humanities are the least supportive of the REF.

Director of research at Research England, Steven Hill, said: “This report offers us a valuable insight into the ways the REF affects or is perceived to affect the UK’s research and researchers. It is interesting to note the range of views, which are often divided along disciplinary lines or career stages. It will be important for us to bear this diversity of perspectives in mind as we begin to design the next assessment exercise.”

“These findings will inform thinking on future research assessment as part of a wider programme of work launched by the four UK higher education funding bodies in May 2021,” UKRI said.

Announcing the review of the 2021 REF, then-research minister Amanda Solloway said the new system must create “more quality time” for research, build a culture that “recognises all contributions”, offer “clear accountability for public funding without…complex bureaucracy” and motivate researchers “to do diverse, creative and risk-taking work”.

New Zealand’s former chief scientist, Sir Peter Gluckman, is heading an international panel of experts reviewing the framework and exploring future models of assessment.

Read more: REF panels more diverse but progress uneven

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