Go back

REF assessment ‘incredibly intensive’ during Covid-19

Arma 2022: REF 2021 panel advisors lift lid on pandemic stresses

Conducting the Research Excellence Framework 2021 remotely during the pandemic was “incredibly intensive”, according to those involved with the exercise.

Speaking at the Association of Research Managers and Administrators’ 2022 conference on 15 November, Pauline Muya, the director of Muya Research Management who was seconded to Research England during the REF 2021 process, said preparations for the exercise were “running along swimmingly” until the Covid-19 pandemic hit.

She said that “as institutions were pivoting to online working and trying to work out what they were going to do for teaching and research delivery, we were pulled into conversations on what we were going to do about the REF”.

“That had implications for when the QR funding was going to flow down. If we delayed, how long should we delay by?” she said.

The REF 2021 was due to be published in November 2021, but it was pushed back until May this year because of the disruption caused by Covid-19.

‘Camaraderie was beyond belief’

Muya said it would be “hard to underestimate the volume of work during the pandemic,” which “could feel quite overwhelming at times” with many meetings taking place on Zoom.

“It was incredibly intensive,” she said, but she stressed that “the camaraderie was beyond belief”.

Muya also questioned the need for institutions to submit as much evidence on the impact of their research.

“It was only at the Covid stage that we decided it was no longer necessary for institutions to upload their evidence on impact. But the reality is that very little of the evidence is actually accessed,” she said. “So why are we as a sector asking for all this work to be done, for all this evidence to be uploaded, for people to not really look at it?”

Apology for ‘banal feedback’

During the same session, Edge Hill University research office director Anna Grey—who was also seconded to Research England for the REF 2021—apologised to institutions “if you don’t get very much feedback” on submissions and for any feedback that is “a bit banal”, but she stressed that the panels “really do not want to give institutions a reason to close or reduce the size of a department”.

“They are always trying to be as positive as they can, and that’s sometimes why the feedback is not as much as you would like,” she said.

Grey also advised REF participants to handle any requests for clarification around a researcher’s material contribution to the work “with good grace”.

“My advice is: if you get an audit query, answer the question. It is there because the panel does not want to give you an ‘unclassified’ mark, so they are giving you an opportunity,” she said.