REF results marred by fears over grade inflation

Officials had to fend off allegations of grade inflation as the first Research Excellence Framework showed a jump of more than 50 per cent in the proportion of top grades.

The inclusion of ‘impact’ as one of the three REF measures boosted the results even more. But even the outcomes of the expert panels showed the share of 4* research rising from 14 per cent to 22 per cent. A further 50 per cent of submissions reached 3*, compared with 37 per cent in 2008.

David Sweeney, Head of Research at the Higher Education Funding Council for England, said the grades were consistent with the UK’s standing in international comparisons. The rising numbers of highly-cited papers was one indication of improvement on the scale seen in the REF results.

He said the results reflected considerable investment over the last six years, with universities attracting funding from business and industry at home and abroad, as well as from government. “By every comparator you can look at, UK research has improved. The UK has become one of the best places in the world to do research.”

Most vice chancellors were more than happy to agree, while recognising that the results were unlikely to be reflected in increased funding. But some privately expressed doubts about the credibility of such a dramatic leap in world-leading and internationally excellent research.

One vice chancellor, speaking on condition of anonymity, described the results as a fiasco. “There has been massive grade inflation and I doubt that anyone would pretend otherwise,” he said.

Another former vice chancellor said that some grade inflation was built into the system. But the scale of the increase at a time of level or declining funding might lead ministers to question whether another REF would represent value for money.

Sir David Greenaway, vice chancellor of Nottingham University, said he hoped that the return on investment demonstrated in the results would persuade the Treasury to look again at the resources that could be devoted to university research. “The results are consistent with international studies such as the one carried out by Universitas 21 on national systems, which showed the UK performing extremely well on a low level of resources.”

Sir David acknowledged that there was a risk that post-election cuts could spell the end of the dual support system and make this the first and last REF. But he said the system had proved itself and should be retained. He added that the inclusion of impact had encouraged academics to consider the consequences of their research.

Most immediate doubts concerned the funding decisions to be made in the New Year. The 24 Russell Group universities filled the top 24 places in league tables of research power, but Dr Sweeney said there had been improvement at universities of all types and Hefce wanted to celebrate excellence wherever it was found.

Most of the 23 GuildHE and CREST members enjoyed improved results in the REF. Professor Joy Carter, vice chancellor of the University of Winchester and chair of GuildHE, said: “I am delighted that the 2014 REF confirms that small and specialist universities are amongst those producing world-leading research.”

Greg Clark, the Minister for Universities and Science, congratulated universities on the improvement in results. He said: “British research is world-class and powering ahead. In our Research and Innovation Strategy, published yesterday, we commit to supporting UK institutions and researchers in scaling even greater heights during the decade ahead.”

However, Professor Michael Gunn, vice chancellor of Staffordshire University and chair of million +, said that government policies had led to the redefining of excellence and “hyper-concentration of taxpayer-funded investment in fewer universities.” He added: “Ministers and the funding councils need to deliver a more balanced research funding formula that invests in all universities and provides the foundations for a broader research base that will benefit all parts of the country.”

Sir Steve Smith, vice chancellor of Exeter University, said that the requirement to balance the commitment to fund excellent research wherever it is found with the need to enable the leading universities to compete with the rest of the world would leave the funding councils with a conundrum. “It is only half-time with results published,” he said. “Now we have to see what happens in the second half, which is when funding is determined.”

Sir Eric Thomas, vice chancellor of Bristol University, said he was delighted to see the strength of British research demonstrated, but he questioned whether the REF approach would need to be streamlined in future. “The process places a heavy load on universities,” he said. “I think we need to review whether there are different processes that are more timely and less burdensome.”

The REF involved 1,911 submissions to 36 panels – a similar total to the last Research Assessment Exercise. The panels reviewed 191,150 research outputs and 6,975 case studies reflecting the social, economic and cultural impact of research.

Fears that the inclusion of impact would drag down the results proved unfounded. A total of 44 per cent of the case studies were judged to be outstanding (4*) and a further 40 per cent found to be “very considerable” (3*).

There was also good news on the increased numbers of young researchers who were permitted to submit less than the normal requirement of four pieces of work. Their results were comparable with the overall grades.

The results will be used to allocate research funding of around £2 billion a year. While the funds will represent only a small share of the budget of many teaching-intensive universities, the results are still significant. Professor Geoff Petts, vice -chancellor of Westminster University, said: “It is not primarily about the money for us. We are on a research journey and it helps to build a research culture across the piece.”

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