Not all research active staff fit into neat categories

The proposal to submit all ‘research active’ staff to the next REF is a cause of concern for many universities. But it is not only those which stand to lose out that should be worried. To understand the problem, we need to reflect on what it means to be ‘research active’, and what we want to achieve from abandoning the process of staff selection used previously.

In his review of the REF, Lord Stern suggested that anyone with ‘significant responsibility for research’ should have a portion of their work assessed in the next exercise – his rationale being that eligible individuals who are not returned to the REF can feel stigmatised.

Categorising staff

Somewhere along the line however, as set out in HEFCE’s consultation, the statement ‘significant responsibility for research’ – which lacks a single accepted definition – has been interpreted to mean any staff member returned to HESA in the categories ‘academic professional’, and an academic employment function of either ‘research only’ or ‘teaching and research’.

If HESA staff codes were an accurate descriptor of roles in academia, you might consider this to be a reasonable way of determining who gets submitted to the REF. But in reality, a world where staff fall neatly into teaching and research categories doesn’t exist.

It is not uncommon for individuals to be placed in a category for administrative purposes which fails to reflect the nature of their job. Nor is it the case that ‘REFable’ outputs are the only things being produced by staff on research contracts. The sector is a lot richer, and more diverse, than that.

There are academics on teaching and research contracts who work with industry, producing outputs that can’t be counted in the REF. There are those in disciplines like nursing who may be on teaching and research contracts but spend most of their time in professional practice. There are also individuals who undertake scholarly development or community-based activities who contribute fully to the research and innovation ecosystem but, like the examples above, are not REFable in any previously understood sense. Where staff are expected to work on enterprise and innovation alongside teaching, it isn’t clear how their activities will be classified under the current proposals. A new HESA category could be the answer.

Excluding excellence?

Institutions with a high number of staff doing valuable but non-REFable activities face a challenge if required to submit everyone. Their producers of 3*-4* publications – which are rewarded by funding informed by REF outcomes – will be accompanied by many other staff with few or no outputs who, understandably, will have spent only a small amount of time on REFable research. As a result, the quality profile of these institutions will appear to have become diluted, even if their absolute volume of 3*-4* research is maintained, or grows larger.

Universities with a surplus of 3-4* research won’t face this particular problem, but they may still wish to test the logic of the proposal. A requirement to submit everyone will mean panels assessing large quantities of 0-2* research which would not have been submitted in the last exercise.  At the same time, the two output per person rule will mean that institutions with the highest volume of 3 and 4* publications will be prevented from submitting the totality of this research.

Why would we want panels to spend time judging lower scoring publications while ‘excellent’ research is excluded from the exercise?

In responding to HEFCE’s consultation, the sector needs to revisit what Lord Stern meant by ‘significant responsibility’ for research, and consider what the whole exercise is for.

Excellence should surely be rewarded wherever it exists. The design of the REF should assist this process, not muddy the water.