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Opposition to changing the REF shows why change is needed

Universities shouldn’t have to ask what a good research culture looks like, says Gemma Derrick

The UK university sector is exhausted. We are suffering a hangover from Covid-19 and industrial action. There is a rising murmur that researchers and their institutions are bruised and now is not the time for change.

On top of this come the rule changes proposed for the 2028 Research Excellence Framework—in particular, the plan to make assessment of people, culture and environment worth 25 per cent of the total. This would replace the environment statement that was worth 15 per cent in previous exercises.

Faced with such a high-stakes change, worries and quibbles are understandable. Some universities have pointed to uncertainties about how research culture can be defined and assessed, and expressed doubts that it can be. Some are lobbying to return to the definitions and weightings used in previous REFs.

But the reception for REF 2028 also shows precisely why the change is needed. Calls to maintain the status quo highlight universities’ inability to see past their desire to compete with one another and think instead about what is best for their own research communities.

Missing the point

Calling for precise definitions of research culture is like asking for a target. It risks negating the purpose of the criterion altogether, and in the process overlooking the issues that will be specific to each institution.

Plainly put, if an institution needs to be told what a good research culture looks like, it is missing the point. The answer lies within.

Movements such as the Hidden REF—the campaign to recognise the contributions and roles in research that traditional evaluation overlooks—show that research culture must be defined from the bottom up, by the people who create it through their day-to-day choices, behaviours and interactions. The REF 2028 rules simply give institutions an incentive to do what they should be doing every day: fostering research and researchers.

Rather than asking UK Research and Innovation to set standardised targets or metrics, universities should see the years leading up to the next REF as an opportunity to understand and improve their own research culture, building on their successes, and identifying and addressing their failings.

Excellent opportunity

To reach this essential goal, there must also be sacrifices. Reducing the assessment’s weighting for outputs, from 60 per cent to 50 per cent, is one.

Some have assumed that this represents a reduction in support for ‘excellent’ research. But research excellence has never been isolated to the outputs criterion alone. It is reflected across all criteria, and who is to say that producing ‘excellent’ outputs is more important than creating excellent working environments?

Excellent working environments enable excellent research. Increasing the REF’s attention on people and culture gives universities the perfect opportunity and incentive to think about what such environments look like and how they can be built.

The research culture in universities is not healthy: the workforce is overstretched and exhausted; the disruptions of the pandemic are still felt; early career researchers survive on precarious contracts while hoping to grab an ever-decreasing chance of job stability; there are outrageous gender, ethnicity and disability pay gaps; and anonymous review processes and top-down, unaccountable management structures still enable too much bad behaviour.

Many people in UK universities would scoff at the suggestion that a research world with the REF is better than one without it. But it is worth remembering that the exercise, for better or for worse, is a tool to help the research community create the type of world it wants.

At an institutional level, good research culture thrives on a diversity of voices, perspectives and methods. At a national level, it is not in the best interests of UK research to have many institutions all looking the same.

Carrot and stick

Evaluation frameworks, such as the Research Excellence Framework, are always a balance between carrot and stick.

The people, culture and environment element of REF 2028 should be a carrot that can entice universities, which generally resist change, towards building a research culture that is healthier, more genuinely productive and more resilient, because it is open to the diversity and variety of people and ideas that make research a great career.

This is what is at stake. Doing the REF right might seem exhausting or too difficult. But making evaluation a stick, making culture another useless target to audit and measure, or falling into an apathy-induced maintenance of the status quo, will be more damaging.

Gemma Derrick is an associate professor in research policy and culture in the School of Education, University of Bristol, and a committee member of the Hidden REF

A version of this article also appeared in Research Fortnight