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Subject-level impact to stay

University leaders and policy experts have welcomed a decision to launch a pilot study assessing the research impact of universities as a whole—rather than making it part of the next Research Excellence Framework.

Plans to include an institution-wide assessment of impact were floated in a review by Nicholas Stern last year. However, this was rejected by UK funding councils when they published initial decisions for REF 2021 on 1 September. The REF is used to inform the allocation of about £2 billion of public funds each year.

The document confirmed that the weighting of impact would increase from 20 per cent to 25 per cent. The weight given to research outputs will decrease from 65 per cent to 60 per cent, while the quality of the research environment will account for 15 per cent.

Maddalaine Ansell, chief executive of the University Alliance of business-focused universities, welcomed the pilot. Assessing impact at an institutional level “could easily mask small but significant pockets of research excellence while giving size and scale undue weighting”, she said.

Simon Kerridge, director of research services at the University of Kent, agreed. “It would have been a car crash,” he said. It could put smaller institutions at a disadvantage and highlight the difficulty of comparing interdisciplinary impact at single subject institutions, he said.

Kieron Flanagan, senior lecturer in science and technology policy at the University of Manchester, said a pilot was sensible. “It is a huge task and the stakes are so high for universities, in terms of the money spent preparing and the reputation that will come from it,” he said.

Flanagan added that the initial decisions were mostly not surprising and “in line with the direction of travel” previously indicated. “The really interesting, and contentious, stuff is still to come,” he said.

The funding councils said that decisions on submitting staff and portability would follow in the autumn. But David Sweeney, head of research at the Higher Education Funding Council for England, said in a blog post in July that he would implement the non-portability of outputs.

The tight timeline for future decisions and announcements has raised concern. Ian Carter, director of research at the University of Sussex, said the timetable “has slipped”. The next announcement of principles is expected in November and the final guidance and criteria in March 2019—quite close to the REF submission date.

James Wilsdon, professor of research policy at the University of Sheffield, said “the biggest thing we want as institutions, managers and individuals is clarity, so we can proceed as quickly and painlessly as possible to undertake the necessary preparations”.

This article also appeared in Research Fortnight and a version of the article also appeared in Research Europe