Significant responsibility – an update on the consultation for REF 2021

Towards the end of our recent REF consultation, I blogged about the difficult question of how ‘research-active’ status could be determined, or, as the Stern Review put it, “who has a significant responsibility for research”.

I noted that what was stated in staff contracts, as proposed in the consultation, was not fit for that purpose and solicited alternative solutions, suggesting that institutions might develop and publish the process they used to establish agreement with their staff on the issue. Martin McQuillan noted subsequently that there seemed to be consensus across mission groups that this suggestion helped address the problem.

His comments mirrored the direct feedback I received after publication. This alternative approach has been largely welcomed in principle. Many people were wary about the additional burden, noting, as Martin did, that much management time could be spent reaching agreement on who has a “significant responsibility” for research.

Martin also described it as a “sticking plaster solution for this REF cycle, allowing institutions more time to achieve clarity on the expectation they had of their academics and the responsibility which academics thought they had to their university.” I’d prefer to see my suggestion as a sensible transitional arrangement, which takes away immediate pressure to address the difficult matter of employment contracts, something in any event which is not a matter for the funding bodies.

A rounder view of research activity

We have been thinking hard about how to minimise the burden which such an arrangement might impose. We know now that the consultation responses substantially back the Stern proposal, and that no better alternative has been proposed for identifying who has a significant responsibility for research.

The Stern recommendations set out to shape an exercise with a continued focus on excellence, but one in which a rounder view of research activity is provided, and where the negative consequences for individual staff members are addressed. The review was concerned about two consequences from staff selection in previous REFs/RAEs. First, the perceived deleterious effect of non-submission on career choices, progression, and morale. Second, the perception that some institutions omitted staff for tactical reasons which meant that the exercise as a whole did not capture a rounded picture of the nation’s research activity.

Therefore those staff who might otherwise have been omitted for tactical reasons must be submitted in the next exercise. The consultation responses supported “all staff submitted with a significant responsibility for research” and inclusion will mean just that, irrespective of the university’s prediction of how the outputs will be marked. Staff submission is now about the activity expected of staff, not about a judgement of performance. In any event, institutions should not fall into the trap of assuming that anyone can predict what the panel judgements will be.


We start from the view of staff eligibility which was used last time, based on contractual requirement. We realise that contractual status does not imply ‘significant responsibility for staff’ but it does indicate those staff in scope for further discussion.

There will again be an ‘independence test’ (which aligns well with the nature of ‘responsibility’ as mentioned by Stern). We may tweak definitions, to emphasise that the exercise aims to capture outputs from the core academic staff of the institution. These will also respond to feedback we have received on the need for further clarity around research independence. Still, the fundamental definition of eligible staff will not differ significantly from last time.

Minimising the burden

We recognise that there are many institutions where there is close to universal expectation that their academic staff have a significant responsibility for research. We will therefore invite institutions to opt for a 100% return at unit of assessment level.

Under these proposals, institutions that consider themselves research intensive would automatically put forward all their eligible staff in the exercise. A small number of eligible staff with responsibility for research in such institutions may not meet a test (see later) of ‘significant’, but we will encourage institutions who put themselves in such a category to verifiably submit everyone and therefore forgo any additional burden. Only a single output (the forthcoming consultation response will discuss this) will need to be associated with a submitted member of staff. So the inclusion of a small number of such staff should be balanced against the burden of running a process to determine who indeed has a ‘significant responsibility’.

Some institutions will reasonably claim that a much larger number of staff do not have that ‘significant responsibility’ for research. Others will have departments – for example practice-based – where there are agreed career pathways, or workload models which provide auditable evidence that staff concerned are not in scope for REF submission. Institutions which have developed such processes will have sufficient material to establish who has ‘significant responsibility’ without much additional burden.

There will also be institutions where there is no agreed position on the responsibilities which their staff have. If institutions are uncertain about the research-active status of their staff, and are unable to resolve this uncertainty within an appropriate time frame through a transparent process, we will urge them too to ‘opt in’ to full inclusion, to avoid the unnecessary burden of audit.

We will expect institutions to develop codes of practice setting out their processes for identifying staff in scope for submission. In no case is there a requirement to focus this discussion on the formal contract of employment, and we would expect codes of practice to be clear on this point.

We will now initiate a period of discussion with institutions about the precise wording of the REF criteria to implement the Stern recommendation while allowing evidence-based decisions about the staff who are in scope. A ‘no burden’ option of 100% return will be available, and attractive to many institutions. For others, the discussions which may take place can share learning on good practice shown by those institutions where there is greater clarity about the research expectations of staff.

This article was originally published on Wonkhe

wonkhe logo