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25th Sep 2018
By 12pm on results day, 14 universities had tweeted that they were in the top 10 for the Research Excellence Framework. Now one would hope that the REF - a new system for assessing the quality of research in UK universities, and one that took six years and £60 million to complete - would not make such a basic numerical error; and so it proves just how far you can manipulate statistics.
The REF assessed research in 36 subject areas: looking at quality, the infrastructure that supported it, and its impact on the outside world. However, the breadth of its success criteria (quality of top-graded research, number of researchers doing top-graded research, impact of that top-graded research etc) meant that numbers could be easily squeezed and stretched until they gave the most favourable statistics.
Another problem, says Adam Crawford, pro-dean for research and innovation in the faculty of Education, Social Sciences and Law at the University of Leeds, was that universities heard about their own results before realizing that the share of top-rated research had gone up across the board, from 14% in the last exercise to 22% in this one. Thus despite their willingness to self-congratulate, this success was definitely a shared one.
Yet perhaps there are other reasons why universities were keen to publicize their achievements. Many universities have worked hard to boost their research profile - for example, City University had recruited about 140 researchers between 2011 and 2013 - in order to help strengthen their international reputation. Indeed, the REF showed that City University had doubled their number of staff producing world-leading research in five years to 40%, and this has opened up the possibility to join with London University. City's vice-chancellor, Paul Curran, said that they are having 'informal discussions about the possibility of making an application', as they are now in a 'strong enough position from a research point of view'.
More than that though, a good REF performance could guarantee you a larger slice of the research funding pie of nearly £2 billion, which will be allocated by UK funding councils in March. However, as that pot gets smaller, universities begin to rely more on other sources of funding such as European grants and student fees, again emphasizing the importance of an international presence. Crawford says that previously 'it was primarily about carving up the cake of public funding', but now institutions must prioritize their 'reputational benchmarks.' Cardiff University recognized the potential benefits of changing strategy: it submitted a lower proportion of its research staff for this exercise, which helped it leap from 22nd to 5th place in terms of research quality.
However, humanities and social sciences are still particularly vulnerable to budget cuts after a better-than-expected performance by the medical and life sciences. Mike Kelly, head of Modern Languages at the University of Southampton, warns that universities will be 'looking at their portfolio of subjects over the next few years' for some 'shakedowns' - if subjects 'are struggling for students' or 'their research isn't well assessed' some universities may 'say time to call it a day.'
This will come as worrying news to institutions for modern languages, who have been recently waving au revoir to student demand. Managers are more likely to concentrate resources on strong areas, rather than on trying to bring up weaker ones, and so departments must try and keep up with one and another. Another area to focus on will be 'impact stories', as the impact of work could join teaching, research and administration as a fourth essential element of an academic post.
The consequences of the REF therefore seem to be as complicated as the criteria used to discover them in the first place. However, many argue that research funding must keep up with that of the other major industrialized economies - whatever investment, divestment and restructuring occurs over the next few months. In other words, we must continue to focus on value creation rather than value separation, both financially and intellectually.
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