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Probe finds ‘systemic’ breach of REF rules at university

Image: Vita Student [CC BY 2.0], via Flickr

Liverpool John Moores found to have breached process for selecting staff entered into REF 2021

An investigation into the conduct of Liverpool John Moores University during the 2021 Research Excellence Framework has found a “systemic” breach of the process for selecting staff to enter into the assessment exercise.

The investigation into complaints about the university was carried out by a panel of funding bodies that award quality-related research funding to academic institutions in the UK, the largest of which is Research England. Liverpool John Moores University has accepted the findings.

Institutions are allocated QR funding based on the results of the REF for multiple years, placing a huge amount of importance on the exercise.

The university received a significant boost to its quality-related funding as a result of the REF 2021 exercise, rising 52 per cent compared with the funding it received after the previous assessment in 2014—from £5.7 million per year to £8.7m.

The funding agencies indicated they would not adjust planned QR funding for the institution as a result of the finding, and said the problem was a result of a misinterpretation.

Complaints upheld

In the 2021 REF, unlike in 2014, institutions had to submit all staff with significant responsibility for research. As a result, many smaller institutions actually increased their performance and therefore the amount of QR funding they received. In 2021, Liverpool John Moores University submitted 604 staff, far more than the 256 submitted in 2014.

The findings of the investigation, published on 22 March on the REF website, detail that Liverpool John Moores University was found to have breached REF rules in areas including the selection of staff. The report said that two complaints received by funding bodies had been investigated and upheld, one partially.

“One aspect of the upheld complaint was deemed to be ‘systemic’, in that it related to the operation of a central process by the institution, highlighting a misinterpretation of the REF guidance in applying the approved code of practice processes,” the report says.

The university told Research Professional News that the investigation panel concluded that “the process used for staff selection drew directly upon output quality and volume, which was a departure from the national REF 2021 guidance”.

The complaint was only partially upheld because the panel concluded that processes for the selection of staff were “in accordance with” Liverpool John Moores University’s own code of practice for the REF, the university said.

As part of the 2021 REF, institutions were required to develop and implement a code of practice for identifying staff to be included in the exercise. These institutional codes of practice were then submitted to funding bodies ahead of the assessment. 

In addition to the breach of process for selecting researchers, the investigation also upheld complaints relating to data accuracy and timescales for the appeals process for staff lodging complaints about not being included in the exercise.

Outcome accepted

“We accept, but are disappointed by, the outcome,” Keith George, pro-vice-chancellor for research and knowledge exchange at Liverpool John Moores University, told Research Professional News.

“We are exceptionally proud of everybody who contributed to the REF at LJMU, including both academic and professional service staff.

“This is especially the case when the final period of REF activity and submission [was] severely challenged by the global pandemic, lockdown and changes to working patterns.

“We will work with Research England in relation to the process and communications issues highlighted to us following their investigation, as well as in the potential preparation of a [code of practice] for the next REF cycle.”

He added: “Research England understand[s] the challenging issues associated with [identifying staff with significant responsibility for independent research], that they did ‘sign off’ our [code of practice] and will also learn from this process.”

A spokesperson for Research England, which administers the REF, told Research Professional News: “Research England and the other higher education funding bodies will work together to ensure our future guidance is clear to avoid misinterpretations or misunderstandings.”

‘Forward-looking’ remedies

The report from the funding bodies said that “remedies were applied in relation to the upheld aspects of the complaints”, but that “these remedies were forward-looking in nature, focused on reducing the risk of similar issues occurring in the future”.

“This recognises that it is not possible to determine in retrospect whether there would have been any effect on the volume or quality of submissions resulting from identified breaches,” the report said.

The report also details that the funding bodies only received four complaints in relation to REF 2021, including  the two complaints relating to Liverpool John Moores University that were upheld.

A version of this article appeared in Research Fortnight