Who is research-active? – A key question for the future of research assessment

On 8 December last year, the UK higher education funding bodies launched the consultation setting out proposals for implementing the Stern recommendation on the next REF. Since then, there has been a lot of discussion about the proposals, including at the consultation events.

Through these, and at other engagements, quite a lot of people have said to me that they do not support the Stern proposals. They would prefer a re-run of REF2014.  That is certainly not the position of the funding bodies.

The UK Government asked us to implement the principles set out by Lord Stern. This is still what we expect to do. Still, we recognise that several of our proposals for putting the principles into practice can be improved, and we will use the consultation responses to inform precisely how we do that.

The issue of contractual status

One area in which we have heard many people raise concerns is around the use of contractual status, as notified to HESA, to determine who is research-active.

We have heard, during our events, that many universities, particularly in Scotland, are required to use a model contract, which includes both teaching and research duties. These standard contracts do not represent any specific pattern of work which the academic is expected to do. The employment contract is an agreement between university and academic.

The funding bodies and the REF should respect the employment relationship. We are therefore considering other ways to capture ‘Research-active staff’. These will need to recognise the contract, but truly reflect the university’s and the academic’s expectations of where there is a responsibility to carry out research that would be appropriately assessed by the criteria used by the REF.

An alternative solution

We recognise that staff selection has been an issue which provokes tension between staff member and employer. So we do wonder if we could look to a solution based firstly on an evidence-based definition (perhaps agreed sector-wide), and then agreement between the university and the academic about a status of ‘research-active’.

That would likely lead to consistently very high submission rates in the research-intensive universities (rather than variations seen by some as game-playing). In universities where the focus may be primarily on teaching and knowledge exchange, there might, as previously, be much lower submission rates reflecting that fewer staff are hired with a primary success criterion being world-leading research outputs.

If we were to proceed along those lines, we would expect universities to develop and publish the process they used to establish agreement with their staff on their ‘research-active’ status.  Equality and diversity issues would need to be carefully tested by appropriate impact analysis to ensure staff with protected characteristics were not disproportionately disadvantaged by this approach.

The cost of staff selection was significant in REF2014 and everyone wants to minimise the cost of determining the eligible population for 2021.  It may be that the consultation will throw up a better approach which implements the Stern principle of ‘100% research-active submission’ – and we are eagerly awaiting the outcomes of our analysis of responses on this issue.

But we also welcome discussion of an evidence-based consensual approach as an alternative to the contract-based approach which has been criticised in our consultation meetings.