The REF-erendum of 2018: building the case for remain*

Imagine that academics across the United Kingdom were granted a referendum on membership of the Research Excellence Framework. How would they vote?

This is a facetious question, since there’s never been anything democratic about the way the government distributes research  funds. But if the mood of academics swings against the REF, there will always be politicians and bureaucrats prepared to suggest enticingly simpler systems. So a groundswell of opposition, whipped into life by a distaste for all forms of performance monitoring, should give cause for concern among remainers.

A month ago, I would have predicted a strong vote for remain; after recent experiences with the leave movement on social media, I’m not so sure. It’s therefore worth considering what could be done to secure the vote.


Project fear

Any good referendum campaign – I think I’ve got this right – needs fear. If there was no REF, that would surely mean the end of Quality-Related funding, currently one part of the UK’s dual-support structure for the distribution of public research funds. That would mean either a loss to the sector of approximately £2 billion per year, a transfer of that £2 billion into grants, or a combination of these options. (Anyone hoping, by the way, that the government might just hand over QR regardless is misreading the definitions of ‘quality’ and ‘related’.)

Regardless, a REF-less world would mean less autonomy for universities in decisions over research development, at a time when the government is already being more intrusive, most notably through the Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund. It would also be disastrous for humanities and social sciences disciplines, which do disproportionately well out of QR and disproportionately poorly out of grants. Toss in the possibility of variable fees by discipline, and HASS departments could face a generation in the freezer. Armageddon my point across?

But maybe we need a more positive message as well. It’s striking just how many academics don’t see any benefits from QR. Some associate it merely with the few hundred pounds of research allowance that their departments hand them. Others resent central decisions to devote QR to grand projects that seem remote and unimportant.

There are lessons to be learned here for VCs and PVCs. Granted, from their perspective all income falls into one big pot; researchers, however, want to feel the benefit of their labours. And it shouldn’t be difficult: for a start, how about universities transparently cost their research leave policies (for those that have them), and connect the dots with QR?

And there may also be some lessons for UK Research and Innovation. RAEs and REF of the past have generated powerful, inspirational narratives of research success for the benefit of politicians and policy-makers. Might some of this effort be redirected towards researchers themselves, who more commonly experience the REF as an oppressive process than a source of inspiration? Perhaps their good will has been taken for granted.



On the evidence of recent social media exchanges, some of the most vocal supporters of REF are immigrants. If the UK’s REF-shaped clarity of expectations has offered an international researcher a career-lifeline, to move from a country in which appointments and promotions are more sluggish and opaque, this can engender a warm glow of affection.

By comparison, academics who have known nothing but the REF are less likely to appreciate what it has done for them – creating jobs, expediting promotions, and so forth – and more likely to view those distant pre-REF days with a sense of wonder. Back then, people spent longer on their big ideas, didn’t they? Britain produced big, serious books, and Nobel prize winners. Academics were left alone to just get on with it.

Too much detail in this table, but it demonstrates the rapid growth of UK research impact, by citation, in the RAE-era. From Adams & Gurney, Funding selectivity, concentration and excellence.

One way of confronting this nostalgia is through data. There is evidence that British research in general was lagging through the 1980s. The surge that has brought the UK to its current position can be traced back to the effects of early RAEs beginning to bite within universities. The UK now UK ranks first amongst its comparator countries by field-weighted citation impact, and this can be explained in part by its broad research base.

But data alone won’t convince people to love the REF. Leavers have the more compelling stories: of poor management in the name of REF preparation; of ECRs being suspended in casualization as they try to build sets of publications to sell to an employer that will immediately push them to repeat the performance for the next cycle.

So there’s work to be done for the remain campaign. Pointing to Professor Ego who has just secured a big pre-REF pay-rise won’t necessarily seize the imagination of a lecturer losing money on the picket-line. UKRI might do well to take some initiative, aiming to make the REF less forbidding. A training programme for line-managers might help, or some research into the effects of REF on appointment decisions. REF might also align itself more explicitly with ethical frameworks such as Athena SWAN or the Vitae Concordat. The ‘real-time review’, announced this week, looks like it might be a step in the right direction.

REF managers may feel burned by the reception of their well-meant proposals on portability, intended to iron out distorting effects of their system on the job market. But now that the rules for REF 2021 are settled there is space for further efforts to inform academic culture. Maybe love is unrealistic; trust, actually, would probably suffice.


Close your eyes and it might all go away

There are more important debates to be having than the one about REF. We should be focusing on the overall quantity of public research funding. Then we might consider the balance between grants and QR. And then again there’s the desperate uncertainty over European Union collaboration. Fussing about the mechanism for distributing QR feels insular, and risks giving the impression that academics are not much bothered with accountability.

But perhaps the REF-erendum is a process we need to embrace all the same. The remain camp can win, yet they may need to engage more openly with their critics’ concerns. These won’t just disappear; and if the remainers lose, nobody can expect a second vote on the withdrawal terms.


One thought on “The REF-erendum of 2018: building the case for remain*

  1. You’re right about how little of the QR money gets back to academics. My dept gets £32k per year, yet submitted to two UoAs. The university divides up the QR money in which ever way it likes

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