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Smaller research universities plan REF 2020 wish list

The Research Excellence Framework is now as inevitable as death and taxes. That much was clear on 28 April, when the Research and Enterprise Network for Universities met to discuss how to plan for the next exercise, expected for 2019-20, writes Adam Smith.

Despite historian Derek Sayer’s rabble-rousing attempts in the higher education press—and indeed at the meeting on Tuesday—to overthrow or at least strip back the REF, even this group of representatives from universities that do comparatively small amounts of research did not vote to try to abolish it. It is a sign that a system has become accepted when those who have been historically disadvantaged by it agree not to fight it.

Instead, the conversation at the meeting, held at Birmingham City University, which was held under the Chatham House rule, focused on how this group of universities could influence the creation of the next exercise to their advantage. Their members include Edinburgh Napier University, the University of Lincoln, Coventry University, Plymouth University and Anglia Ruskin University.

Stat attack

The group is far behind the Russell Group, according to Research Fortnight’s analysis of the REF results. For example, the average overall quality score (based on a 4:1 weighting of 4* and 3* ratings across the sub-profiles) was 20 for Renu and 48 for the Russell Group. The scores show about the same difference on impact, with Renu at 25 and the Russell Group at 62.

There are some top performers in Renu: for example, the University of Westminster had 18 per cent 4* outputs, the same as Queen’s University Belfast in the Russell Group. But this is the exception. Renu has a long way to go before it competes as a group on any front with the Russell Group in the REF. That’s why the group wants to influence the policy to its advantage.

High in their priority list right now is to learn which direction the Higher Education Funding Council for England is likely to take with the next exercise. Indeed HEFCE hasn’t yet confirmed that there will be another REF (despite developing an open-access policy for it), but a spokeswoman for the council told Research Fortnight that HEFCE would open a consultation on the policy this autumn. The resulting preliminary guidelines are expected in spring 2016, although the HEFCE spokeswoman declined to confirm this.

On game

So universities are already preparing for the game even though they don’t yet know the rules. “If they go for a REF in 2020 that gives us three and a bit years,” said one delegate at the meeting. “That won’t be much if they go for significant changes.”

Renu members don’t expect, or desire, major reform of the system. But they do want to push for certain assurances. They are interested in the developing idea of ‘emerging areas of excellence’, a phrase that ministers and funding councils have given lip service to in the past year or so.

The question in policymakers’ minds is how to protect excellence as the sole criterion in research funding while at the same time recognising that some departments need a little push to help them to become excellent. The Scottish Funding Council is the pioneer in this: by tweaking its quality-related funding formula and controversially dropping its £14m Global Excellence Initiative, the SFC will in effect be shifting some research funding away from the elite institutions towards younger entrants. The University of Edinburgh will lose £8 million in the shakedown.

All aboard

Renu members also discussed the rumour that HEFCE could cancel the selection game and require universities to submit every single researcher on staff. While some people think this would ease the burden on universities in doing painful internal selection exercises, others thought that post-1992 universities would be disadvantaged.

The argument goes that these institutions try very hard to encourage their staff to do research, and they keep many of them on joint teaching and research contracts with this in mind. But under a submit-all policy, these budding researchers might be moved on to teaching-only contracts—cutting off their chances of getting into research. That’s hardly a sensible policy for a nation that seeks to grow a large and diverse research base, they say.

The other area where they worry about being disadvantaged is if HEFCE merges the unpopular impact template into the environment section of the exercise. Despite concluding that impact is here to stay (and with many members saying that it is a good thing), Renu doesn’t like the impact template. This is a widespread view across universities, which found it hard to pull together such diverse forms of impact into a single coherent statement. “They were a waste of space,” says one director of research. “Exercises in creative writing.” So the idea gaining a lot of traction among universities, if not yet HEFCE, is to talk up the culture of impact in the environmental statement instead.

Head start

The score weightings would, of course, need to be reconfigured too. But Renu members at the meeting on Tuesday worried that increasing the weighting on environment could be unfair. “There’s a danger that those institutions that historically have been well endowed have an in-built advantage in terms of resources and capacity,” said one. The point being: Oxford is a good place to do impact alongside lots of other things simply because it is Oxford and it has about a 700-year lead on building facilities and such like. On the other hand, this worry may be misplaced, with many post-1992 universities in REF 2014 showing that they are excellent arenas of impact.

For example, Renu members Coventry, De Montfort University, and Birmingham City were not far from achieving the same levels of 4* impact ratings as the Universities of Birmingham, Exeter and Liverpool.

This might change, or at least become more mixed, in the next REF if HEFCE hears one of the findings from the evaluations of the last exercise. RAND Europe’s Catriona Manville and her team found that panelists felt they could differentiate between submissions by more than the four-point scoring system allowed. It is possible that HEFCE could choose to create new grades—this was neither welcomed nor opposed at Renu, but it was raised as something to watch.


The group did, however, seem happy with the equality and diversity measures taken in the REF. They seem to want these to remain, with only minor tweaks. Some members said that awareness among staff for all the individual circumstances they could claim was low. This will automatically be less of an issue next time. One delegate claimed that the funding councils were thinking of how to strengthen diversity commitments.

“I’ve heard senior funding bodies talk about whether holding an HR Excellence in Research award or an Athena SWAN award should be a condition of participating in the next REF,” he said. “I think we should expect to see formal conditions ramped up.”

Exposed to politics

Among the conversations about a tweak here or a new condition there, the group rarely looked at the bigger political picture. The REF was created primarily as a way of distributing quality-related funding. And yet this money is under threat. The pledges and plans of the political parties seeking to form a government after next week’s election imply major public spending cuts, as we report in this week’s Research Fortnight and special election supplement. As an unprotected budget in an unprotected department, research and QR funding are not safe.

Renu members may be more concerned about the Higher Education Innovation Fund, which has been good to them over recent years. One delegate was asked at the meeting what she would do if she could save only QR or HEIF. “I’d choose HEIF,” she said. “For my institution and the direction we’re going in.”

Data reporting by Gretchen Ransow.