Charting the REF waters ahead

REF Manager Kim Hackett explains her team's approach to deadlines and consultation during the Covid-19 pandemic

There have been a lot of big REF decisions on the journey from 2014 to the implementation of the Stern review.

Those decisions were discussed, developed and decided on in a world in which we could take the continuation of life as we knew it for granted. That has, of course, now changed. It is in the face of considerable uncertainty that more big REF decisions are needed. What is the best point for the revised submission deadline? Should the deadlines for outputs and / or impact be extended? By how much? Universally, or for affected pieces only? Some of these are questions about which, only weeks ago, there had been certainty.

We know, in the REF team and the wider funding bodies, that the sudden uncertainty on these issues is difficult to manage and plan for, and that answers sooner rather than later would help. But only if the answers are the right ones for the future in which they’ll take place. There are a lot of different views on what these answers should be, and still so many unknowns ahead of us.

So at this point, it may be helpful to chart where we are at present with some of these decisions, and where we’re aiming for over the weeks and months ahead.

What we know

The countdown to the submission deadline for REF 2021 stopped on the 24 March 2020. The funding bodies took the decision to do this based upon evidence about the effect of coronavirus on REF submission preparation. It was a clear decision to take – at this time, we need to support institutions in prioritising activity responding to, and fighting against Covid-19, and ensure in so doing they are not concerned about the effect on REF submissions. The funding bodies are clear that this pause to the exercise should allow institutions to pause their own preparation activity without detriment to submissions. The clock will restart with at least eight months’ notice.

We have also confirmed that, at present, the census date for staff remains unchanged. So 31 July 2020 is the point that determines the staff complement for the assessment.

I know there are mixed views on the census date staying the same. It has been identified by some as central to minimising additional burden and building on existing submission preparation. For others, concerns have been raised about running staff eligibility processes in the weeks ahead, or on some emerging effects of coronavirus on expected employment periods. We have recently clarified that there should be time for eligibility to be determined retrospectively, which I hope will give some reassurance. I will be keen to hear more detail about particular challenges the timing of the census date may pose for certain staff groups or institutions in the coming weeks, and ways that these could be addressed in the final submission process.

Decisions to be made

We don’t know at present when the new submission deadline will be. We will be evaluating options carefully before engaging with the sector, and at this point have not ruled any out. However, it is already clear that an extension of only two to three months would need discussing with the sector imminently. So we should have clarity in the next few weeks on whether or not that option can be progressed.

Knowing whether or not the deadline for outputs and impact will change is a more urgent concern – particularly impact, with the end of the assessment period now a little over three months away, and clear evidence of a range of disruption to planned activity. We are also keen to make sure we capture the current research impacts on the pandemic itself.

Unless we’re looking at a very considerable delay, the funding bodies do not intend to alter significantly the period being assessed in REF 2021. So the issue around the existing deadlines is really one around determining what the best approach will be to ensuring the exercise can take account of affected areas of submissions.

The sector voice

This is a question that needs discussion with universities before decisions can be taken. There is already a diversity of opinion on what ‘best’ here might mean – the approach that can most minimise burden on institutions, or the one that can offer the most recompense for affected areas, or the one that offers the fairest approach across all groups of staff at the point the assessment takes place. These are all key criteria for the revised framework, but determining what the right balance is across such important principles must be done consultatively.

My team will need to be creative in its approach to engaging the sector on these issues. We’ve paused the REF because universities have other priorities right now. So we can’t fill that with lengthy consultation documents and expectations of similarly lengthy responses. We’ll also need to approach the issues in a phased way, balancing the urgency of the question with how well it can be answered in the current context. That means we’ll be looking to get input on the deadline for impact and environment first.

The overarching timetable for developing the revised framework is not fixed – and it has to be this way, so that we can stay responsive while so much is still unknown. But our aim will be to ensure the exercise remains a level playing field, is fair in recognising the extent of impact this period has had, and is also able to capture the tremendous contribution UK research is making to this fight.

6 responses to “Charting the REF waters ahead

  1. Thanks Kim for the update. It’s useful to get this overview on the REF team’s approach.

    The issue around the deadlines for outputs and impacts are certainly a concern for members of GuildHE Research. That said, we are not in favour of a lengthy delay to the process, particularly at a time when the UK’s full spread of research excellence is needed more than ever.

    We are very happy to help out by providing some input from small and specialist institutions as your thinking develops.

  2. It’s difficult to believe that Research England and its partners are seriously planning to continue REF2021. The cost of REF2014 was estimated at £250m, and that for REF2021 will be more. That time and money could be better spent in research relevant to how we are going to come through Covid-19.

    Think how irrelevant it would be to have slightly delayed REF2021 results arriving in 2022, when our priorities will be to understand the impact of the pandemic on our society.

    A delay of 2-3 years could be based on a continuation of funding based on REF2014 results, and would give a significant period over which to assess research addressing the impact of the pandemic.

  3. I second the view put forward by Mike Fisher. We shall be emerging into such a changed university environment that REF 2021 cannot fulfil the purposes it was designed for. It’s meant to be about improving things for the future, based on the expectation that the future would be more or less like the present. The only thing we know at this point is that it won’t be. Add to that the chaos into which the final period of this assessment as been thrown, and the most rational option, which you can be sure would be met with near-universal acclaim, is to cancel REF 2021 and take the opportunity to reimagine the best way of determining how to distribute research funding for the 2020s and after. It will not be through a mechanism that was designed for the 1990s. If COVID-19 isn’t exactly the Ice Age, neither is REF 2021 exactly a dinosaur. But rather too close for comfort.

  4. REF is a zombie exercise in all but name now. The bureaucrats would doubtless still be at their desks seconds before the bomb dropped but it really is game over, folks.

  5. I’m surprised by talk of short 2/3 month extensions. We’re probably going to be heading in and out social distancing for most of the 2nd half of 2020. Surely the plan should be for the worst, rather than hope for something shorter and have to change the date a second time?

    There are too many other unknowns to be consulting on this quickly yet. There isn’t even an agreement on financial support for next year at the time of writing. Surely that should be agreed before universities start trying to think too far ahead?

  6. The postponement also creates some uncertainty for academic publishers. I understand the submission deadline has been postponed, but it’s not clear to me if books still need to be published this year in order to be eligible. I work in academic publishing and some authors wanted to delay their books into the next REF cycle, which potentially means putting them on hold until the new deadline is announced, which obviously isn’t ideal

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