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The Future of the Research Excellence Framework (REF) – UKRSA Consultation Response

 The Research Excellence Framework (REF) is the evaluation with which the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) assesses quality of research institutions and the results of the REF inform government funding allocation in higher education. Many people will remember the previous REF to which UK Universities made their submissions at the end of 2013 and which was published in December 2014. Briefly, each institution is broken down into Units of Assessment (UOA) which may be departments or faculties, etc. Each UOA then submits a list of their employed researchers and a number of outputs (most often published peer-reviewed papers) for each researcher which are then assessed for quality by an independent panel. There are also measures for impact and environment.

In 2016 an independent review of the REF conducted by Lord Stern was published. There were several recommendations for changes to future REFs proposed, including changes to the definition of research active staff and that outputs would not be portable when researchers move to a new institution. As a follow-up to this review, HEFCE conducted a public consultation of the recommendations proposed to which the UK Research Staff Association (UKRSA) submitted a response. To inform the UKRSA consultation response a survey was sent out to research staff across the UK, disseminated through the UKRSA network of regional representatives (see PdOC newsletter, 15th February 2017). The survey received 50 responses.

The UKRSA consultation response focused on recommendations that were most relevant to research staff, the full response can be read here. We expressed our concern that the recommendations would lead to early career researchers being reclassified into non-research active staff categories which are not REF returnable with potentially detrimental consequences for job security and career development. There was also concern about the proposed inclusion of a measure of independence in the definition of research active staff as this is very hard to capture and again may unfairly impact research staff. While it is widely acknowledged that the fact that outputs were portable in the previous REF led to an unintentional hiring window in the two years before submission that allowed research institutions to “game” the system by recruiting successful researchers who brought their outputs with them, it is not clear that non-portability of outputs is the answer. It was considered that this proposal could potentially have a negative impact on, one hand the mobility for research staff within the research sector, and on the other hand the opportunities to build a career at a research institution while on a fixed-term contract. Furthermore, it is often challenging to attribute outputs to institutions in a straight-forward way. We included proposals about exceptions for research staff and weighted double counting of outputs as possible ways to mitigate the impact of non-portability of outputs.

The next REF is planned for 2021 and we now wait to see how the recommendations from the Stern Review and the consultation responses will be implemented.


Dr Adina L. Feldman, PdOC Society President, on behalf of the UKRSA committee


Text: Dr Adina Feldman (PdOC President)