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Next Step for REF | Research Consulting

As someone who was deeply involved in institutional preparations for REF 2021 in a research-intensive university, and subsequently served as a Panel Secretary to two REF 2021 sub-panels during the assessment phase, I’ve been keen to learn more about the initial decisions published last week on the design of REF 2028.

On Friday, Westminster Higher Education Forum hosted a half-day webinar about the ‘Next Steps for REF’. With around 200 people attending, from a wide range of institutions, the initial focus of discussion was a presentation by Dr Steven Hill, Director of Research, Research England, which outlined the proposals for REF 2028.

What’s changing?

There are significant changes to the approach for REF 2028, including:

  • New terminology for the three areas of assessment, redefining “research excellence” in the context of REF.
  • A rebalancing of the three areas of assessment: People, culture and environment (25%); Contribution to knowledge and understanding (50%); Engagement and impact (25%).
  • A shift away from the perceived assessment of individuals, to assessing whole institutions and disciplinary groupings within them – this includes removing minimum or maximum numbers of submitted outputs per eligible staff member; use of HESA data (averaged over 2 years) rather than submitted staff lists and a census date; and aiming to limit novel data collection as far as possible. It also means that there will no longer be any need to gather information about individual staff circumstances, a time-consuming and sensitive process.
  • Its positioning in underpinning a future research system which produces high-quality, rigorous, openly accessible research; which is inclusive and collaborative & supports diversity; and which is engaged and impactful, driving socio-economic change.
  • Widening the types of contribution which can be submitted beyond conventional academic publications – and broadening the scope of staff who can contribute to assessed outputs and impact case studies to all those with a substantial link with the institution.
  • Reintroducing a refined version of the impact statement (last seen in REF 2014, before it was subsumed into Environment statements for REF 2021) and adding a structured questionnaire element within the Contribution to knowledge and understanding area.

Challenges and unintended consequences

Audience contributions and panel discussion generally welcomed the overall direction of these proposals, but also highlighted particular challenges and possible unintended consequences, such as:

  • Removing the minimum or maximum number of submissions may skew submissions, with a perception of the minimum and maximum as a possibly more egalitarian feature of the previous assessment.
  • Need for adequate time to prepare data and systems ahead of the start of use of HESA staff data to calculate research volume.
  • How the widening of scope for output submissions will affect institutions and systems – especially as they start to track people and outputs for the first time who would previously have been outside the scope of REF 2021; and whether expectations of additional publication activity will increase for teaching, technical or professional services staff, with implications for contracts and Codes of Practice.
  • Whether decoupling of individuals from institutional assessment can ever truly work, as the tasks of achieving quality submissions for the institution remain with the people who work within it.

Digging deeper

In the first panel session of the morning, Anna Grey (Director of the Research Office, Edge Hill University, with previous experience of REF preparations at the University of York and as a Panel Adviser in REF 2021) articulated some of these concerns very well, from the perspective of managing the preparation of institutional REF submissions. James Wilsdon (Director, Research on Research Institute; and Professor of Research Policy, UCL) pointed to the greater emphasis on consistent and appropriate use of metrics – “data for good” – rather than narrative statements as exercises in creative writing. Joe Marshall (Chief Executive, National Centre for Universities and Business) spoke about the greater potential for translating impact to other disciplines and sectors.

Fiona Ross (Emerita Professor, Health and Social Care, Kingston University, and member of the Equality and Diversity Advisory Panel for REF 2021) spoke of the progress made in terms of equality, diversity and inclusion in REF 2021, but how far institutions and the UK research system generally still have to go, particularly in relation to race. REF is a lever for change – but one REF cycle or round of Code of Practice revision is not long enough to achieve a real impact on culture.

In the morning’s second panel session, Chris Day (Vice-Chancellor and President, Newcastle University) offered his perspective as a university leader on the direction of REF towards encouraging institutions to translate their research into impact. Karen Stroobants (Lead Policy Advisor, Research Landscape and Economy, Royal Society of Chemistry) welcomed the proposals – particularly the expansion of the definition of excellence – as well as referencing some work we at Research Consulting have undertaken on behalf of the RSC looking at the picture presented by REF 2021 of Chemistry as a discipline. Kieron Flanagan (Professor of Science and Technology Policy, Manchester Institute of Innovation Research) spoke of the role of research in the vitality of places and the opportunity to re-examine assumptions which underpin the current funding system. Cagla Stevenson (Senior Analyst, RAND Corporation) shared insights from RAND’s work on the real-time REF review and its current work analysing themes from the REF 2021 impact case studies.

The session closed with presentations from Marta Agostinho (Executive Director, EU-LIFE) looking to international perspectives on shared principles for research assessment and Alexander Ademokun (Deputy Director, Place, Impact and Research, Department for Science, Innovation and Technology) discussing the UK government’s view of the role of REF in funding, policy and planning for research in the UK.

Further reading

Elsewhere, there has been lots of excellent commentary and discussion about the emerging shape of REF 2028. Research Consulting’s Rob Johnson published this helpful blog post last week. Other useful publications from the last few days include:

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