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REF delay should help staff, not institutions

Universities should not be given extra time just to polish their submissions, says Gemma Derrick

In the midst of tackling a pandemic, audit exercises should be the least of universities’ and researchers’ concerns.
So the decision to postpone the submission date for the 2021 Research Excellence Framework has been widely welcomed.

As things stand, the 27 November deadline for REF submissions has been scrapped, pending rescheduling. Higher education institutions are poised to pounce on the eight months preparation time they have been promised once the new deadline is announced. The census date of 31 July, when institutions submit information on staff with significant research responsibility, remains in place. 

While we wait for the clock to restart, there is much debate about which of the REF’s deadlines should be extended, the form the rescheduled exercise should take, and whether it should take place at all. 

These debates often overlook that the REF is not a single thing. It’s critical that the design of any extension considers how the productivity lost to Covid-19 will affect preparations for each of the exercise’s three components. It also needs to ensure that extra time is used to relieve the burden on staff preparing submissions, not for strategic game-playing by institutions.

Staff working on output, impact and environment submissions are not feeling the pressures equally. Any measures put in place by universities and the funding councils should reflect this. 

At this stage of REF preparation, delaying deadlines will have a minimal effect on the final submissions of research outputs. The case for extending both submission and census dates for impact case studies and environment statements is much stronger. 

Those preparing these will benefit more from having extra time to conduct the impact events and evidence gathering Covid-19 has interrupted. For impact, an extension to the submission date alone would mean little; an extension to the census date must also be considered.

Guard against gaming

For environment, how a unit of assessment responds to a crisis such as Covid-19 should surely be seen as a gauge of its vibrance and sustainability. This element would therefore also benefit from an extension to both submission and census dates, so that evaluators can assess institutions on their handling of the pandemic alongside traditional measures of esteem.  

An extension that treats each part of the REF separately may also guard against gaming. If universities simply leave their old internal deadlines in place and use the additional time for a never-ending cycle of internal discussion and polishing their submissions there is little need for an extension in the first place. 

There is no point in universities using an extension to marginally increase the probability of significant gains in the final outcome. They must not fall into the trap of believing that additional time and tinkering will allow them to transform a one-star submission into a four-star effort.

To make sure additional time is going to those who need it most, universities must make an honest assessment of how the pressures placed on different groups of staff balance with a realistic expectation of the organisation’s competitiveness within the exercise. They also need to comprehend how the current disruption might affect their expected REF outcome. 

That will mean institutions tempering their expectations about how this extra time could influence their final outcomes. Universities should be using the pause to reflect honestly on their expectations about their ambitions, their actual performance and their eventual outcomes. As with the effects on staff burdens, the potential gain in competitive advantage offered by the extended deadline will be larger for the impact and environment criteria than for outputs.

Universities are currently responding to Research England individually about how Covid-19 has interrupted their REF preparations. There is room here for realistic consideration of how the crisis has influenced each criterion separately, and to adjust both the census and submission deadlines accordingly. Altering deadlines appropriate to each criterion would maintain Research England’s aim to assess research within a defined period of time, without interfering with the integrity of the next REF period and exercise.

A delay in the REF, then, should not be used by universities to engage in strategic manoeuvring. And Covid-19 should not be a convenient excuse to cancel the REF altogether. What is needed is robust thinking and planning that takes into account each criterion, with the aim of relieving staff burdens, not feeding universities’ competitive urges.

This article also appeared in Research Fortnight