Friday, 30 January 2015

On REF 2014: Why nobody wins unless everybody wins.

As a slightly obsessive[1] Bruce Springsteen fan, I’m familiar with the phrase “nobody wins unless everybody wins”. It was used by Mr. Springsteen at the conclusion of many of his concerts in the 70’s and 80’s, and from time to time he still uses it as a valediction (there is almost certainly a web site that cross-references all instances of his use of the phrase in concert with performances of ‘Prove it all night’ with the 78 intro the phrase, and if not there should be). What it means is that we really are all in this together, and that winning (financially, professionally) is only truly meaningful if it also brings about good for others: if a company makes lots of money, it should pay its workers better, rather than giving the CEO a bonus, sort of thing. For a good analysis of its use in a business context, see Bill Taylor’s article in the Harvard Business Review on Dec 7th 2010.

So what has this to do with the Research Excellence Framework (REF)? First of all, I don’t believe that research is about ‘winning’. Setting aside the comparative impossibility of that concept - the idea that researching the origins of cancer can be compared to researching the end of the Roman Empire - it’s incredibly difficult to adequately compare research within the same area of study, let alone the same discipline. Yet this is what the REF has set out to do. Much has been written about the sheer scale of the task of the REF research panels (and I unconditionally applaud these panels, who have worked tirelessly to peer-review submitted work in their panels, for a small stipend that works out at about 2p an hour). It must be extremely difficult to assess 4938 outputs (the total for the sub-panel which my work went into this time) and grade them on a scale of 1-4. It’s harder when also being asked to assess impact and environment: without adequate background information, how can this be really scored?

There were problems with the process: reports of manipulation of the rules, including Premiership-level moves of key researchers in the final REF transfer window of September 2014, and even more controversially the exclusion of researchers from the whole process.  The criteria meant that smaller units or departments were vulnerable without developing strategic alignments (for an excellent overview of the whole REF process, see the LSE Impact blog piece by Tony Murphy and Daniel Sage)

These issues made the REF a complicated process, but are essentially a distraction from the main problem, which is that the UK’s Higher Education sector is a functioning and effective ecosystem of a huge range of skills and strengths, and that a ranking system of assessment like the REF fails to acknowledge the fact that research is part of a wider educational system with mutual dependencies. Researchers also teach, supervise students, engage with the public, and create new knowledge in partnerships with with other public or private sector organisations: a successful ‘unit of assessment’ does all these things in a balance that works for their host organization and the communities they serve, whether undergraduates, postgraduates, colleagues in their own discipline, or researchers and students in other disciplines, the creative industries, the heritage sector... To single out research publications as the primary means of evaluating worth is to fail to understand the nature of scholarship and higher education generally. Some departments (or centres) are simply more effective at teaching, or interdisciplinary research, or experimental research that is hard to assess. Other departments benefit from this, whether in the form of receiving students that have received an excellent undergraduate education as postgraduates, or integrating outputs of research into new work, or in in benefiting from policy developed as a result of service on committees and related activities. Similarly, many academics liaise with museums, libraries and archives in two-way collaborations that create new knowledge around cultural heritage: these outputs, and their tangible and intangible benefits are hard to define, let alone evaluate. And these dependencies are more necessary now that we all have to do more with less: in higher education, we really are all in it together.

I should have this said at the start that of course, I offer warmest congratulations to those who did well in the REF. To have one’s research recognized in this way is gratifying, and I hope that the departments and universities who achieved success in the REF will be rewarded for their achievements. But that there is a finite pot of resources, and rewarding the highest rated outputs will be to the detriment the many.

There is already concern that the strong showing of the sciences will be at the expense of the humanities. Again, the ecosystem is important: the study of the humanities is strong in the UK, and expertise in the humanities brings benefits to business, medicine, and other disciplines. Science and medicine also benefit from collaborative work with humanists. Rewarding the sciences at the expense of the humanities will disrupt this balance.

Another concern is the widening of the gap in research outputs between South East and the rest of England. The balance of funding going to Those Who Have Done Well will exacerbate this divide. I’m not going to have a political rant, but this does reflect a general condition of the post-credit crunch UK economy.

The UK has a fantastic Higher Education sector, which routinely punches above its weight internationally, despite a lack of investment compared to its global competitors, especially the US Ivy League.  The rankings that really matter are where we compete internationally: seeing UK Universities in the world top 10 is far more meaningful than saying that History at University X ranks higher than history at University Y. 

Concerns are now being voiced that REF ‘winners’ will be rewarded at the expense of the losers. To me, this reflects a wider malaise where all the gains in society seem to be going to a smaller segment of the population, with the rest of us struggling to hold ground. We need to defend Higher Education as a sector, and to help it flourish by recognising that . Let’s hope that faith will be rewarded.

[1] Fanatical and deranged.

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