Stern times ahead for REF game players

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In higher education the noun ‘consultation’ is what linguists call a ‘contronym’, a word that contains its own opposite meaning, such as ‘resign’ meaning both ‘to quit’ and ‘to sign up again’, or, ‘sanction’ meaning both ‘to give permission’ and ‘to impose a penalty’.

Consultation in universities, whether it is a government request for sector opinion or a formal process in industrial relations, seems to be the mechanism by which the views of others can be simultaneously noted and ignored.

This is not to be unduly cynical about university managers or sector agencies. A consultation can be both the action of formal discussion, or a meeting with an expert (such as a doctor) at which one receives an indisputable answer. You can consult the Oracle, but you cannot bargain with it.

Consequently, much second-guessing goes on in higher education consultations. The tendency on the part of respondents is not to challenge the premise of what is being consulted on but to ask how can we helpfully enable the consultant to skip discussion and move to enact what ought to be a matter of doubt.

Academics have become inured to consultation. They have internalised the belief that it is the precursor to the inevitable. It is part of the masochistic character of academic life.

Academics like being hard done by. It feeds the tendency that seeks enjoyment from pain and humiliation which lead them to write PhDs in the first place. Academics validate their sense of self-worth by having more weight piled on top of them. The heavier the weight, the more important the academic feels. It offsets their feelings of guilt about privilege in the Ivory Tower. The relationship in a higher education consultation is not that between patient and healer but between a masochist and their chosen sadist, in which the academic asks: ‘how can I help you inflict more pain on me?’

Fifty Shades of Stern

The higher education funding councils are currently consulting on the implementation of Lord Stern’s independent review of the Research Excellence Framework. Stern’s review of the REF states that it wants to reduce “workload and burden” before proceeding to make a series of recommendations that would add considerably to the cost and weight of research assessment. It is a classic example of why government should never ask someone who has never run anything to give their opinion on how things should be run.

At this moment folk in universities are trying to second-guess the views of REF managers and politicians. They are attempting to come up with baroque propositions that will both please ministers and benefit their own institution. Not all circles can be squared; they should for once just say what they think.

A technical consultation is different from a statutory consultation. The later is a legal requirement arising from legislative change, and the statutory obligation to consult is seldom accompanied by the duty to listen. You can always tell such consultations. They are usually buried deep within the webpages of an often unrelated government department with a short window for responses. A technical consultation, on the other hand, is the cunning civil servant’s tool of choice to reverse the unworkable proposals of an independent review or to transform ministerial red lines into shades of grey.

Universities should not meekly accept Stern as a given. There are enough winks and nods in the document to encourage the belief that this consultation is actively seeking reasons not to implement the good Lord’s wishes.

There are four significant issues to be resolved: whole staff submission, defining ‘research active’, the portability of outputs, and institutional level statements of impact and environment. All parts of the sector have reasons to be unhappy with Stern’s proposals, even if their motivations are quite different.

Firstly, there is whole staff submission, which Stern imagines will end ‘game playing’ in the REF. The suspicion remains that ending ‘game playing’ really means stopping upstarts doing well in the REF through selectivity. Whatever, problem it is intended to fix, it presents a technical challenge.

While 100% staff submission is easy to understand the effects of separating outputs from individuals are complex, and so are unlikely to attract the same level of attention in responses. However, the interplay between volume of staff submitted and the spread of outputs between them is key to the new game of REF 2021.

At the upper end of a Unit of Assessment, quality submissions with several star researchers will be able to submit considerably more 4* outputs, while reducing the amount of unfundable research they present. As a wise policy wonk pointed out to me recently, the result will be bunching at the top of the table, a flattening of the hierarchy, and a lack of differentiation from Oxbridge down to middle-ranking Russell Group institutions. Oxford and Leeds could achieve similar results. This might play well in Yorkshire but be less welcome news in the Home Counties.

At the lower end of a UoA, grade point averages and income will be decimated by unselective submissions with the inclusion of many staff without any outputs. Given that the totality of QR is a nil-sum-game, under Stern, it can no longer be true that greater volume must always result in increased funding. Rather the point where volume begins negatively to impact GPA will be the cutoff point at which staff will be considered for a re-designation of contracts away from research.

The significance of significance

Interestingly, Stern actually proposed that “all academic staff who have any significant responsibility to undertake research [should be] returned to the REF”. The keyword here is ‘significant’. Sir Humphrey famously explained to his minister: “Almost anything can be attacked as a loss of amenity, and almost anything can be defended as not a significant loss of amenity, which seems to signify that one should appreciate the significance of significant”.

There is all the difference in the world between those with a “significant responsibility to undertake research” and anyone designated, for want of an alternative HESA category, as a ‘research and teaching’ academic. This would include those whose primary remit is in teaching and scholarship, enterprise, industry, civic engagement, professional practice, or clinical matters.

This leads us to the definition of ‘research active’ in the technical consultation. Almost anyone can be defined as research active in HESA, and almost everyone can be excluded as not significantly research active according to institutional requirements.

To avoid a wholesale redefinition of academic contracts across the sector, skewed academic strategies within universities, or a rushed introduction of new HESA categories, the technical consultation should take account of the significance of significance. It’s the sort of technical problem that Lord Stern’s impressionistic review of the REF failed to appreciate. Whole staff inclusion will necessitate the submission of many more low-quality units (some entirely unfundable) and thus actually increase the burden on institutions and assessors. If staff submission is determined by JACS code rather than institutional selection, we could be looking at a considerable dilution of UoA quality across the board. The only way to make such submissions meaningful would be to fund the whole range of outputs from 1* upwards, though it was surely not Lord Stern’s intention to direct money towards low-quality work or to make pointless returns.

The introduction of institutional-level environment and impact sections – accounting for a combined 12.5% of the submission – will also draw funds away from the best work in individual units towards aggregated mediocrity. It would reward size and coverage rather than fund excellence wherever it is found.

Likewise, non-portability of outputs would benefit institutions, not individual academics. The intention might have been to reward those lower league universities with ‘youth academies’, while institutional level environment rewards those in the premier league. However, government should think twice before it introduces any incentive that discourages mobility between institutions or investment in the academic workforce. The REF and its predecessors have been successful in promoting growth in meritocratic academic employment. Masochistic academics should be careful what they wish for.

There are then sufficient grounds to think that the key recommendations of Stern would not prevent game playing and, against intention, may well encourage universities “to separate inappropriately or dichotomise their research and teaching missions”. This is a highly significant question, as much as it is a technical one. In making their returns to the consultation, academics should not ask, ‘does this benefit my institution’, but does this benefit university life as a whole? When the masochist, who likes it Stern, says ‘hurt me more’, a genuine sadist would say ‘no’. The technical consultation provides an opportunity to save us from ourselves.

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