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REF plans under discussion as Covid-19 pandemic escalates

The REF team is looking at the impact of coronavirus as November submission deadline looms

Planning is underway for what to do if the Research Excellence Framework is interrupted by the spread of Covid-19, as academics call for REF2021 to be pushed back.

Exercise manager Kim Hackett told vice-chancellors that the team behind the audit was “examining a range of possible options” as the capacity of universities to take on extra work is severely squeezed due to the coronavirus. At the moment, the submission deadline for the REF2021 exercise is 27 November but some are warning this could now be difficult to meet.

“We are aware that there is the potential for coronavirus to affect [university’s] REF submission preparations,” Hackett wrote in a letter to vice-chancellors and principals written on 13 March. “We would like to reassure institutions that the REF team are currently engaged in contingency planning for the REF.”

Hackett explained it was “not yet clear what the nature of the effect [on the REF] will be”. But when the team has a better idea of the impact on the REF, it will “assess the consequences of any steps we take for both the delivery of the exercise, as well as for institutions directly”.

The REF is jointly carried out by the Department for the Economy in Northern Ireland, the Higher Education Funding Council for Wales, Research England and the Scottish Funding Council.

Some academics have already called for the REF to be postponed as universities battle the knock-on effects of the coronavirus. Kieron Flanagan, senior lecturer in science and technology policy at the University of Manchester, told Research Professional News the REF should be put back as it is a “non-urgent activity” and “ it would make no difference to postpone the exercise for a year and roll over QR funding allocations”.

“Nothing depends on REF taking place but it has a massive preparation cost, especially within the universities,” Flanagan said. “That effort could be freed up to focus on the core task of transferring teaching online, keeping major research projects going and looking after staff and students.”

Tom Crick, professor of digital education and policy at Swansea University, said he was “pretty clear” the REF would have to be postponed as it would not be possible to work on REF submissions alongside universities’ other commitments over the next few months.

A spokesperson for UK Research and Innovation, which is responsible for Research England, said: “There are currently no plans to postpone REF 2021. However, given we are in an evolving situation, the REF team is exploring options to mitigate the potential negative effects of the coronavirus on HEIs’ REF submission preparations. We will of course monitor the situation, engage with institutions as it develops, and take any necessary actions in line with government advice.”