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HEFCE launches consultation on REF2021

As HEFCE launch its consultation to take forward the Stern Review and implement the next Research Excellence Framework for 2021 we take a look at the key proposals and debates that are likely to follow.
This article is more than 7 years old

Mark is founder and Editor in Chief of Wonkhe

David Morris is the Vice Chancellor's policy adviser at the University of Greenwich and former Deputy Editor of Wonkhe. He writes in a personal capacity.

Ant Bagshaw is a Senior Advisor in L.E.K. Consulting’s Global Education Practice and co-editor, with Debbie McVitty, of Influencing Higher Education Policy

Today saw the release of the hotly-anticipated 44-question consultation on the Research Excellence Framework, the promised next step following July’s publication of Lord Stern’s review of REF. The deadline for responses is 17 March 2017 with results anticipated next Summer.

July’s Stern Review report was not universally welcomed, with some seeing its proposals as likely to cause further research concentration. The proposals, which we covered here, leave the basic principles of the exercise untouched – that there should be a periodic review of research output – but tweak the rules on how institutional submissions work. Early-career researchers were up-in-arms at the proposals, seeing threats to their career progression.

HEFCE’s consultation picks up the proposals and sets out how almost all of them could be implemented for the next exercise.

The next REF, planned for 2021 (submissions November 2020, results in Spring 2022), will be the first operated – assuming all goes to plan with the HE and Research Bill – by UK Research and Innovation. Thus far, REF (which is a UK-wide process) has been run by the English funding council. The significant funding that comes from REF-informed Quality Related – “QR” – money make this a high-stakes game, quite aside from the role that the exercise plays in league tables. HEFCE can expect a large number of submissions to this consultation representing the full diversity of higher education with disciplinary, institutional and personal perspectives.

Key proposals

  • All ‘research active’ staff (defined by HESA codes of “research only” and “research and teaching”) will all be submitted to the REF.
  • An average of eligible staff employed over a set period will be used to determine the numbers of staff submitted.
  • Research outputs will no longer be portable across institutions.
  • All REF2021 submitted outputs must be available in open access form, though monographs will be exempt until the following REF. Other exemptions also apply as explained in a 2014 paper here.
  • As recommended by Stern, ‘impact’ will have a much broader definition.
  • The proposed quality profile weights are 65% for outputs, 15% for impact, 5% for institutional impact, and 7.5% respectively for institutional environment and research environment.

A common theme throughout the document is dealing with the implications of decoupling staff and outputs and submitting at the Unit of Assessment Level. It is becoming increasingly apparent that this could reduce significant REF burden for individual staff, with fewer impact case studies to write up, less pressure to publish, and less damaging implications of taking time out of work.

Addressing one of the most contentious implications of Stern’s proposals, the consultation has made a very open-ended request for suggestions on how to mitigate the unintended consequences of the end of output portability, particularly for early career researchers. However, the document has no concrete proposals as yet, and so it’s time for the sector to get its thinking cap on.

HEFCE is also asking a reasonable question about staff “who hold substantive research posts outside the UK, and whose research is not primarily focused in the submitted unit.” This is aimed at the practice of buying-in research stars, often fairly late in the day, to add heft to institutional submissions. A move to clamp down on the transfer market in research may have negative consequences for those individuals benefiting from the market, although it might give everyone more confidence in the exercise’s outcomes.

Using Wonkhe’s proprietary Consultation Excellence Framework, we have rated this a 4* consultation with extra marks for the impact it will have on the sector. The questions seem genuinely open giving scope for a broad range of responses. How HEFCE, and its successor in UKRI, manages to navigate the territory will be interesting to watch over the next few years.

2 responses to “HEFCE launches consultation on REF2021

  1. It’s an interesting, much-anticipated and wide-ranging consultation and is likely to form the basis for formal REF2021 guidance (as with other HEFCE Consultations whilst there may be tinkering at the edges once feedback from the sector has been received, they won’t be large scale: the framework outlined in the consultation document will underpin the next REF – regardless of what the sector says).

    Lots here to digest and ponder upon.

    Amusing to see the Funding Councils diplomatically presenting the revised proposals as something they were fully behind when, of course, as we all know they were imposed on the Funding Councils by Jo Johnson via Stern. (HEFCE soon to be UKRI don’t have as much influence these days as they used to do or – as they’d like us to believe they still do.)

  2. Trapping ECRs in lower ranked institutions (perhaps their first employment) and hammering their opportunities and careers is a predictability despicable way to end the transfer market.

    Pretty much every professor and pseudo-professor in the country has abused that market for their ends.

    If the drawbridge is to be raised for young staff, let us hope that some of the charlatans in the brimming professoriate also meet their reckoning.

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