When I first heard the idea of expanding the Research Excellence Framework (REF) overseas, I was sceptical. I started out at HEFCE in the REF team, becoming quickly embroiled in the mass of administrative effort it involves: convening the panels, developing the guidance, building the systems. Since then, I have sat next to the REF team as they laboured through the intense period surrounding the submission deadline, and into the administrative peak of the panels’ assessment. As I watched that activity, I reflected on the idea of including more universities, more languages, more international travel, and thought ‘not likely’.
I was, of course, looking at this from the administrative point of view. Colleagues of mine, with different experiences and perspectives, were positive about the idea and its opportunities. This has been echoed, sometimes to my surprise, in some of the conversations I have had with higher education experts, funders and university management from all over the world.
An undercurrent of enthusiasm ran through the room when we discussed this matter with higher education sector representatives from the UK at a roundtable last month. The opportunities for benchmarking and research collaboration (among others), in the increasingly global context of research, outweighed for some the logistical challenges of implementation. That’s not to say that risks and concerns, including burden, were glossed over. Instead they were seen as surmountable.
The launch this week of our survey on an international REF has confirmed that we hadn’t yet captured an adequate range of views. Since the launch, I’ve seen interest, but also scepticism and incredulity at the idea of extending the exercise overseas.
My favourite tweet was from The Council for the Defence of British Universities who wrote: ‘you have a month to save the world from #REF’. This, in my view, very succinctly captures the essence of a particular response to the idea. One in which the REF is divorced from the quality-driving, reputation-promoting, funding-allocation functions with which it is often identified among policy makers and senior management. One in which the exercise may instead represent burden, performance management and government interference. Why on earth, one may then ask, would another country invite this in?
So, while it is obvious to state, the different views we will all bring to the question of an ‘international REF’ are likely to arise, at least in part, from our own experience of the exercise. Which is good, because any changes to the REF will affect all of us involved in some way. But I also wonder whether there is value in flirting with another perspective before confirming our own? I have had the opportunity to hear many views on the international proposal so far – and I look forward to hearing more still – which have all helped me to think in different ways about the opportunities and risks presented by the proposal to internationalise research assessment. That doesn’t mean to say I no longer hold any reservations. But I do believe there is potential worth exploring.