CDBU Response to REF Review

In December, Jo Johnson, the Universities and Science Minister, launched a review of university research funding. The goals of the review appear well-aligned with those of CDBU: ‘to cut red tape so that universities can focus more on delivering the world-leading research for which the UK is renowned’. The review is chaired by the President of the British Academy, Lord Stern. CDBU drafted an initial response to the call for evidence, which was then circulated to members for comment before being submitted last week. The full response can be downloaded here.

The main points can be summarised as follows:

The committee needs to take a close look at the purpose of the REF; there has been considerable mission creep and it is trying to do too many different things. Its cost-effectiveness has never been properly evaluated.

Specific suggestions are:

  • Reward institutions that have high levels of staff satisfaction.
  • Reward institutions that foster early-career researchers.
  • Consider a system where funding reflects the number of research-active staff who have contracts extending into the future.
  • Do not use incentives that treat accumulation of research funding as an end in itself.
  • Do not award a higher proportion of funding on the basis of impact.
  • Do not rely on competition to drive up standards: create incentives for more co-operation both within and between institutions.
  • Take steps to encourage a diverse research landscape, rather than creating further concentration of research in a few institutions.
  • Be vigilant about the dangers of introducing criteria that might work well in one discipline but be unsuitable for others

We thank those CDBU members who contributed to our submission, and look forward to covering future developments on our website.

CDBU’s Response to the Green Paper

The Council for the Defence of British Universities (CDBU) today submitted its response to the Green Paper “Fulfilling our Potential: Teaching Excellence, Social Mobility and Student Choice“.

We undertook this exercise in good faith and with good will since the focus of the Green Paper is on issues close to the heart of our founding values: how to assure the continued high quality of university education in the UK, and how to ensure wide and fair access to higher education. One of our aims as an organization is to provide expert, insider advice on, and responses to, government policy proposals that look to build on the already considerable achievements of UK higher education. What our close analysis of the Green Paper has revealed, regrettably, is that ‘consultation’ is a misnomer, since in its content and wording the document reveals time and again that the recommendations, far from being proposed as possibilities, are assumed by the authors of the Green Paper to be acceptable and to be awaiting implementation.

Equally, if not more worryingly, the quality of the arguments, of the evidence used, and of the presentation of the recommendations, is inadequate. One of the chief policies – the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) – is put forward to address putative problems, without providing any evidence that these problems exist. The proposed TEF would be an expensive and bureaucratic system that would entail increasing complexity and disruption for years to come. The use of proxies, such as the NSS or graduate income, for teaching excellence is at odds with the ethos and values of education and scholarship. Both the content and the methodology behind the Green Paper come across as counter to the academic values that lie at the heart of any university worthy of the name. These values include reliance on reason, argument, and evidence; critical and creative thinking; rigorous analysis of data; and precise and meaningful communication. There is no recognition in the Green Paper that the primary purpose of universities is to foster these values; instead, universities are equated with businesses, value is defined purely in economic terms, and students and staff are set up in opposition as consumer and vendor respectively, working to serve conflicting interests (to pay as little as possible for the product purchased and to charge as much as the ‘customer’ will take). This is to misunderstand how universities work; to ignore the fact that unlike profit-driven organizations, the idea – and subsequent success – of our UK universities is rooted in staff and students working not towards a transaction but towards collaboration in the pursuit of understanding, knowledge, and truth.

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Why are UK universities still relying on journal impact factors?

By the CDBU Steering Committee

If you work in the sciences, you will be all too aware of the journal impact factor (JIF). The requirement for ‘publications in high impact journals’ has become a staple of job advertisements, and the achievement of this goal is emblazoned across research group websites as evidence of gloriousness.

The strange thing is that the validity of JIF has been questioned for many years. JIF is a bibliometric measure that was designed to help librarians decide which journals were most likely to be worth stocking. As Stephen Curry noted in 2013, even in that capacity it has been found wanting, and it certainly was never intended to be used to rate quality of individual research papers. Indeed, there are arguments that ‘high impact’ journals are more likely than other journals to publish papers that report dramatic findings that are unlikely to replicate, and to use editors and reviewers who lack expertise in the subject – the LSE blog on impact of social sciences has gathered a number of useful links on this topic.

So why are universities still taking JIF so seriously? It can’t be blamed on the REF. The Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) explicitly stated that for REF2014: “No sub-panel will make any use of journal impact factors, rankings, lists or the perceived standing of publishers in assessing the quality of research outputs.” Continue reading

CDBU launches infographic on student fees


As noted in an earlier blogpost, CDBU has a strong interest in student fees.

We are concerned that Fees in England are nearly four times higher than in Ireland and seven times higher than the next most expensive country in the EU, the Netherlands. English students now graduate with over three times more student debt than the average American student. By 2046 collective unpaid student debt will be £330 billion in today’s money.

Students have been told that the state will pick up their unpaid debt, but in thirty years’ time they will be the taxpayers who will have to repay the unpaid balance on their own student loans. So the current fees system shifts the entire funding burden from older people – whose university years cost them comparatively little or nothing – to the next generation.

The current government plans to make matters even worse by selling student debt to banks and pension funds at a knock-down price. The aim? To fund tax cuts that help older people even more.

Most students and parents in Britain, from all backgrounds, agree that the majority of higher education costs should be paid by the state.

In common with many of our academic colleagues, we think that the current system is unfair, irresponsible and unsustainable.

To raise awareness of this issue, we have launched a short infographic that provides the key facts on two A4 pages.

  • The infographic summarising the key points can be downloaded as PNG or PDF: Print-Ready format or Hi-Resolution formatPlease publicise this: print it out, display it, and send it to your friends.
  • A detailed commentary on the facts and figures behind the infographic can be found here (opens link in a new tab).
  • Information about the policies on higher education funding of the different political parties can be found here. (opens link in a new tab)
  • The draft text for a letter that you might like to send to candidates standing for election in your local constituency can be found here (download).

Restructuring Politics at the University of Surrey: An Unexpected and Questionable Decision

By the CDBU Steering Committee

Last Thursday evening, academic staff at the Department of Politics at the University of Surrey received a communication from the department of Human Resources informing them of a proposal for ‘restructuring’ the Faculty of Arts and Human Sciences. This was totally unexpected. The proposal in the document would lead to redundancy for four professors, two senior lecturers, and three lecturers – 57 per cent of the department. Politics would remain a taught subject within the School of Social Sciences, but would no longer exist as a named department.

Several reasons were given for this: (i) A decrease in undergraduate admissions; (ii) poor performance on REF2014; (iii) inadequate grant income, well below the sector benchmark.

At CDBU we appreciate that we can’t assume all departments will just continue in perpetuity, and vice-chancellors have to make decisions about the viability of particular disciplines. But we are concerned about the way this has been handled, which in many ways resembles the ‘restructuring’ exercise conducted at Kings College London last summer.

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Abolishing fees for STEM subjects

Last October, the Council for Defence of British Universities (CDBU) asked UK political parties for their manifestos on financing of Higher Education. We are still waiting for a reply from Labour and Conservatives. See

We are grateful to UKIP, Plaid Cymru and the Green party for their prompt responses. However, we are concerned that both UKIP and Plaid Cymru talk of selectively reducing or even abolishing fees for students in Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths (STEM subjects). In the first of two short videos responding to this policy, Howard Hotson notes how it is logically problematic.

UK political parties on fees: A deafening silence

A core concern of CDBU is the funding of higher education in the UK. We are not a party political organisation, but we take an intense interest in policies relevant to our aims. With an impending election, we think it is important that the public be well-informed about the intentions of different political parties. Accordingly, in October 2014, Gordon Campbell, Chair of CDBU, wrote to UK political parties as follows:

I write as chair of the Council for the Defence of British Universities. We hope that higher education will be one of the issues in the forthcoming general election, and to that end we are inviting each of the political parties to send us a statement of their policy with respect to the funding of higher education. We will post these short statements (up to 200 words long) on our website. We would particularly welcome comment on tuition fees, but would also be pleased to publish views on the role of the REF in the funding of research. I would be pleased to receive a statement of your policy by 1 December 2014.

This letter was sent to Conservative, Labour, LibDem, Green, UKIP, SNP, Sinn Féin, Plaid Cymru, SDLP DUP, Scottish Conservatives and the Scottish Labour Party*.

We are disappointed to report that to date we have had replies only from the Greens, Plaid Cymru and UKIP.

These are posted here.

We appreciate that the issue of fees is a complicated one, but it is of concern that none of the major parties appears to have worked out a policy that they are prepared to state publicly on this issue.

We will add further replies if and when we receive them.

*There were variants in some letters where appropriate. E.g. ‘I appreciate that Sinn Féin is an all-Ireland party, and that that may complicate your response, but it might help for me to say that we are principally interested in the policies with respect to the UK government in Northern Ireland.’

Reflections on the REF and the need for change

Discussion piece by the CDBU Steering Group

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Results from the research excellence framework (REF) were publicly announced on 18th December, followed by a spate of triumphalist messages from University PR departments. Deeper analysis followed, both in the pages of the Times Higher Education, and in the media and on blogs.

CDBU has from the outset expressed concern about the REF, much of it consistent with the criticism that has been expressed elsewhere. In particular, we note:

Inefficiency: As Derek Sayer has noted, the REF has absorbed a great deal of time and money that might have been spent better elsewhere. The precise cost has yet to be reported, but it is likely to be greater than the £60m official figure, and that is not taking into account the cost in terms of the time of academic staff. Universities have taken on new staff to do the laborious work of compiling data and writing impact statements, but this has diverted funds from front-line academia and increased administrative bloat.

Questionable validity: Derek Sayer has cogently argued the case that the peer review element of REF is open to bias from subjective, idiosyncratic and inexpert opinions. It is also unaccountable in the sense that ratings made of individual outputs are destroyed. One can see why this is done: otherwise HEFCE could be inundated with requests for information and appeals. But if the raw data is not available, then this does not inspire confidence in the process, especially when there are widespread accusations of games-playing and grade inflation.

Concentration of funding in a few institutions: We are told that the goal is to award quality-related funding, but as currently implemented, this leads inevitably to a process whereby the rich get richer and the poor get poorer, with the bulk of funds concentrated in a few institutions. We suspect that the intention of including ‘impact’ in the REF was to reduce the disparity between the Golden Triangle (Oxford, Cambridge and London) and other institutions which might be doing excellent applied work, but if anything the opposite has happened. We do not yet know what the funding formula will be, but if it is, as widely predicted, heavily biased in favour of 4* research, we could move to a situation where only the large institutions will survive to be research-active. There has been no discussion of whether such an outcome is desirable.

Shifting the balance of funding across disciplines: A recent article in the Times Higher Education noted another issue: the tendency for those in the Sciences to obtain higher scores on the REF than those in the Humanities. Quotes from HEFCE officials in the article offered no reassurance to those who were concerned this could mean a cut in funding for humanities. Such a move, if accompanied by changes to student funding to advantage those in STEM subjects, could dramatically reduce the strength of Humanities in the UK.

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