It’s time to abolish the REF – here’s how to do it

The REF is partly responsible for universities’ present ills, but if we get rid of it, we need to find an alternative model for allocating research funding. Norman Gowar, former principal of Royal Holloway, University of London, suggests a way forward

As always it was a great pleasure to read Dorothy Bishop’s proposals for abolishing the teaching excellence and student outcomes framework (TEF) and research excellence framework (REF) – although despair at the circumstances that prompted the piece. Getting rid of the TEF was one of the recommendations in our book published last year, but as Dorothy points out, whilst the REF is responsible for some of the present ills (marketisation being the other), abolishing it is a little more problematic. Perhaps there are two main reasons it has survived. Unlike the TEF, at least judgements were made by academics respected by their peers and so there was some, perhaps grudging, acceptance of the outcomes. Secondly, as she rightly points there is a need for a way of distributing research funding.

For those of us who were around in the 1980s when the research assessments were introduced it is interesting to recall the circumstances. Although there was a professed need to increase student numbers there was not a policy to increase research. But if academic numbers also increased and the link between teaching and research maintained, then research costs would go up without a conscious decision that we needed more research. The idea therefore proposed was to have three types of university, R, X and T. T universities would be largely teaching with sufficient time built in for academics to keep up to date. X universities would be on the traditional model. R universities would be research dominated. This proposition did not survive. (It is interesting to note here that the Open University did indeed break the link between student numbers and research costs – a central course team could offer a course to a large number of students while still on contracts that left time for research.)

The damaging industry of league tables

The research assessment exercise (RAE), as it was then called, therefore became not only a method for distributing research funds but, because the results were published, gave birth to the iniquitous and damaging industry of league tables. This was given an extra twist when polytechnics were granted university status, included in the tables, and therefore thought they had to mimic others in order to climb up the tables. So valuable diversity was lost.

The growing importance of the REF and TEF and the national student survey (NSS) has led not only to the growth in administrations as Dorothy Bishop points out but an increasing influence of senior administrators over policy. As one senior academic put it to me: ‘I’m fed up with being told what to research and what and how to teach by people who have done neither.’

There was a time when universities were given a block grant which recognised that both teaching and research were what universities were about but that within a department colleagues would vary as to the relative balance between the two. Some concentrated more on teaching, some were going through a fallow period with their research, some were brilliant researchers but not great teachers – some both, and so on. The health of a department depended on drawing on everybody’s strengths and respect for colleagues’ different contributions.  Although there was a well- understood pecking order amongst universities the strength of the external examiner system gave international confidence in the standards of a UK university degree wherever it was awarded. Sadly that has been downgraded in the desire to inflate degree classifications to attract more students, severely demotivating academics – another example of the dominance in policy-making of senior administrators over academics and of the government’s simple-minded belief in the market as a driver of quality and efficiency.

The self-defeating competition for more students

An easy analysis shows that the hunt for more students has been self-defeating. The significant extra funding per student has been spent on marketing to recruit them, buildings to accommodate them and staff to support them. The student: staff ratio has barely shifted. Over-commitment of debt and administrative cost have led to financial uncertainty and shifting of risk to insecure contracts for teaching staff. In exchange for £9,250 per year students are getting a poorer teaching experience.

With the vast expansion of the university system it is no longer possible to returning to funding by block grant, so Dorothy Bishop’s proposal might be the way forward for the allocation of research funding. But there remains the problem of identifying ‘research-active’ staff. Some years ago the Committee of Vice Chancellors and Principals (CVCP) asked me to convene a small group to investigate the possibility of using metrics for assessing research. We looked at the most recent exercise and instead of looking at the detailed submissions we simply analysed the metrics and came up with a pretty close match to the results of the full-blown exercise. We recommended that this be applied in future and only when results for a particular department differed significantly from the previous exercise would a deeper look be undertaken. This may be a way of following Dorothy Bishop’s proposal that funding should be based simply on identifying research-active staff by virtue of their contracts of employment. It would not need the current exercise or ranking of departments and the publication of league tables, but evidence of publication relevant to the discipline in question.