Research Excellence Framework (REF) and the changing face of academia

By Jonathan Tuckett
27 Jan 2013

A while back I was doing a roundtable discussion for the Religious Studies Project (http://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/). During the discussion one of the participants, Kevin Whitesides, refused to be allowed to be confined to a particular “box”. As is the way of this sort of thing myself and a couple of the other participants turned this into a running joke that Kevin does not wear hats. Unlike Kevin, the rest of us are quite happy to wear our academic hats that mark us out as anthropologists, sociologists, phenomenologists, or whatever.

I happen to like my phenomenology hat and I imagine all those that do wear hats enjoy wearing them too. In fact our hats are quite important to us. Putting on a hat helps us approach our subject, because contained underneath our hats is a wealth of background knowledge. More exactly, while I am wearing the phenomenology hat, it determines the way in which I go about studying my subject.

In a similar fashion, if I were to wear the sociology hat I would go about my subject in a very different way. Now, to talk about wearing or not wearing a hat has always had the flavour of a joke, but recently Dr Michael Marten of the University of Stirling wrote on the Critical Religion Association site (http://criticalreligion.org/) about the encroaching REF (Research Excellence Framework), and I started thinking about the wearing of hats in a more serious fashion.

The REF is meant to develop “overall quality” profiles of various departments to assess how much funding they should be receiving and sifting through the website which is sparsely detailed you can find the criteria for assessment here. The overall profile has five levels, four stars to no stars, that will determine how much money a department is due. Stars are awarded according to the “quality” of the work an institution provides. I have placed quality in scare quotes because quality is a highly subjective terms and the REF does its best to assess this in terms of the department’s “originality”, “significance” and “rigour”, another set of highly subjective terms that have no definition whatsoever on the REF website.

However, these terms don’t really need definition for REF because really the quality profile is determined by three further subprofiles, all graded from four stars to no stars, entitled “Outputs”, “Impact” and “Environment”. Of these three subprofiles “Outputs” occupies a whopping 65 per cent of the overall profile and this again repeats the terms of “originality”, “significance” and “rigour” and again there is no definition as to what is meant.

What I suspect is that “Outputs” will have very little to do with “originality”, “significance” or “rigour” at all. It’s hard to see in fact how the words connect with one another. The title of this subprofile is a quantitative word suggesting that what this subprofile is concerned with is the amount of content a department can produce in a given amount of time.

This association is all the more obvious when you notice that it is “Outputs” and not “Output” which is the only plural title among the profiles and sub-profiles on REF. Yet the criteria for this subprofile are all qualitative words which puts them at odds with the quantitative overtone of the profile title. There is no such thing as an originality scale where you can number your work on a scale of one to ten, and even if you could, originality is one of the most elusive qualities to be found in academic work.

Speaking personally, I am acutely aware that more often than not the brilliant ideas I come up with have already been had by some previous scholar. But this does not as such invalidate the work that I do and certainly some of the best work going on right now is building upon what others have already done. Not everything needs to be original in order to be good.

There is a tension between quality and quantity and its one I feel quite regularly. In another podcast I found myself quite intimidated by Carole Cusack’s take (http://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/2012/08/30/building-an-academic-c...) on getting a job in academia when she advocated a much higher output of material than I have so far achieved in the second year of my PhD.

Having attempted to increase that level of output I am certainly feeling the strain as various commitments have ground together as they vie for supremecy (book reviews, article publications, tutoring, Taekwondo, my job, the actual thesis itself…). As Nietzsche pointed out, a person led by many virtues will find themselves in situations where those very virtues tear them apart. REF intends to exacerbate this situation by expecting four outputs (articles) by each researcher for each of its submissions. The chances of my getting two “outputs” done by the time I finish my PhD are slim at best, but that is what REF expects.

Eventually the choice will have to be made to go with either quantity or quality because I doubt very few people would be able to successfully manage both. And ironically if REF pays attention to the level of journal your “outputs” are going to then the situation becomes ever more difficult. In order to reach the four “outputs” the researcher would have to skimp on quality and thereby send their “outputs” to lower end journals only to have REF deny them because the “quality” is not high enough.

Admittedly I should temper this by pointing out that four is the maximum “outputs” expected of a researcher for a submission. But with funding becoming scarcer and competition fiercer I wonder how long it is before four becomes the minimum.

There are signs that departments are beginning to favour quantity over quality, as pointed out by Michael Marten previously, which is why I started off speaking about hats. What it comes down to is that in an effort to work REF and get as much money out of it as possible we are starting to take off our hats, but unlike Kevin who refused to wear a hat we are putting on a new hat. The REF hat. What I see with the emerging REF is that people are going to start to cast off our sociological, anthropological and phenomenological hats because these hats won’t gain an institution any money.

It may seem as if there is some defence against this when we look at the neat little categories that make up the 36 units of assessment (http://www.ref.ac.uk/panels/unitsofassessment/). But do departments really fit into nice neat little boxes like that? Departments that straddle the nice neat units of assessment (like this one) will suddenly find themselves in danger because they do not fit so easily.

We might be called Critical Religion, but the work done here at Strirling, and by those departments like us, covers all 36 of the REF’s units. We belong nowhere and everywhere, and even though our work can and does cover many units, this is not likely to score us any points – quite the contrary. If funding is determined by unit and a department covers multiple units it is at a disadvantage because it is not clear which unit it should draw from.

Could it mean that when applying for funding in one area, this will be denied because the department does not match all the criteria for that unit? And the danger is that when the pressure’s great and the money’s thin we will allow ourselves to remove our hats and wear the REF hat as the only way to survive. But what would the cost of that really be?

What sort of work can any department achieve when it is fenced into a little box with no room to manoeuvre of its own accord? Unfortunately, we may find out in 2013/2014.

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(c) Jonathan Tuckett is a doctoral student in phenomenology at the University of Stirling. He is also a sub-editor and roundtable convener for the Religious Studies Project.

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