Friday, 29 July 2016

Reshaping the REF balloon - the Stern Review


Trying to make a change to the REF whilst not breaking it is akin to squeezing a balloon. Press or reshape too much and it bursts, but solving a problem by squeezing in one area produces bulges elsewhere.

And so we come to the Stern Review - an independent review of the Research Excellence Framework (REF) - that was published this week. [link]

The Balloon

The areas where Stern has tried to rectify problems in the REF system are most specifically around returning all research active staff and making research outputs not be portable. These are responses to the game playing by universities around staff submissions and the Premier League football approaches occasionally seen: with outputs basically 'bought' as a package with star academics or overseas imports. But, of course, in reshaping or squeezing the REF balloon other aspects of the system bulge in response.

Martin Eve summarizes really well the debate around portability as does Adam Golberg and Athene Donald. I find this less of a worry than others (even footballers don't get to transfer their trophies to the next club they join). However, I perceive potential bear traps in submitting all research active staff in terms of contracts and terms/conditions that we will have to see the details of implementation to review whether it is actually fairer and more equitable.

Matt Shaw has an ongoing blog bibliography which will document links to various debates on this subject as they emerge.

A Team Sport

The key evolutionary change is one of culture. The reason for all the sports analogies is the way that the Stern Review specifically seems to shift research and its assessment to a team sport. Impact last time round provided for a team approach and even if not applied as such it did make a culture shift to consider research in groups and themes for future REFs. Stern's emphasis on interdisciplinary research/impact, the change to the environment statements and the non-portability of outputs all, in my opinion, strongly signifies a desire to shift the culture of Higher Education to a team approach. Academics naturally think and act like individuals with strong individual research agendas, but the Stern view of REF and the discourse has shifted to team and group. I can thus see how that causes stresses, contradictions, and concerns regarding marketisation, expressed by many on Twitter in response to the Review.

The Key Recommendations of the Stern Review

Next Steps:

"In order to fulfil the Government’s ambition and complete the next REF by 2021, we propose the following timetable.
  • Through the summer and autumn, the UK Governments and funding councils should work together to translate the principles outlined in this report into the structures and formulae for submissions. Work will be required to test the impact of our proposals on scope for game playing and to mitigate against unintended consequences. Further work might also be required to model or pilot new ideas.
  • By the end of the year a formal consultation should be issued so that the community can offer their views on the proposed process and the future REF formula. The decisions arising from this consultation should be published in the summer of 2017.
  • As the shape of later years of the TEF exercise are revealed, Government should check the consistency of the two exercises and work to promote complementarity and mutual support and to alleviate tensions and burdens.
  • The proposed process will allow sufficient time for universities to prepare for submissions to be collected in 2020 and the assessment to take place in 2021, with the final outcome of the next REF exercise to be published by the end of 2021 for implementation of the funding settlement in 2022."
(Paras 114 – 119:)

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