A new report has told the sector something it has always known. Running REF is expensive.
At £471m, or around £67m a year over the seven year REF cycle, its annualised cost is greater than the annual income of the University of Chichester. The septennial fee is more than the total annual funding distributed by OfS for student access and success. If Research England, its counterparts in the nations, and UK universities wished to get into football they could buy a West Bromwich Albion sized club every year instead of running REF.
Bigger bolder REF
REF is not only expensive it is getting more expensive. REF 2021 cost around £3m for every HEI that submitted, up from £2m in 2014, and £1m in 2008. Costs per provider have increased by 66 per cent albeit there has been a 68 per cent increase in the number of staff submitted to the exercise.
REF is not getting more expensive because Research England is lining its pockets. REF is expensive because it is massive and getting bigger.
To assess submissions across 157 providers encompassing 76,000 researchers is always likely to accrue a significant administrative cost. A smaller REF would be a cheaper REF but there would be trade offs in the quality of the exercise. Although it is a lot of money, only 21 per cent of institutions believe it does not represent value for money.
Being expensive is different from being inefficient. REF 2021 cost £471m to distribute up to £15bn of QR funding between 2022/23 and 2029/30. REF 2021 has been widely praised as fair, thorough, and transparent, and spending 3-4 per cent of the total funding on administration is pretty lean. A small-scale study highlighted by Kings College London suggests up to 13 per cent of total award funds are usually spent on administration. This report places the cost of the research council’s own peer review process at around 12 per cent.
To put it another way, up to 97 per cent of funding is actually distributed as funding, there are charities and funders of all kinds that can only dream of this kind of frugality.
Impacts and efficiencies
The majority of costs associated with REF is the coordination and review of Unit of Assessment activity, management costs, and the preparation of impact statements and case studies. The cost is mostly staff time. While staff can only spend their time once the activities they are carrying out have obvious wider benefits.
The whole point is that REF is an incentive mechanism for staff to spend their time working on excellent research, the translation of research into impact, and the cultivation of good research environments. REF is an evaluation exercise but it is also a means to an end in making research better in a number of ways.
The report says there are around £100m of potential future savings through reducing data and reporting requirements. However, if the next iteration is done properly, it may well end up being an equally expensive exercise.
People, culture, and environment
The increasing weighting toward people, environment and culture in REF 2028 includes a clear expectation that providers will reflect on their own work in this area in a more significant way than they have to date. Although looking at and acting on data on environment, gender research gaps, promotions, who gets published, and any other indicators that will fit within people, environment, and culture, will be expensive, it will be worth it if it leads to positive changes to the research environment.
It should be an expensive undertaking because it would suggest that universities are doing this work properly. It would suggest that amidst all of the funding challenges this work remained a priority. And in the long-run it would suggest that universities are investing in the sustainability of their research. The thing with research environments and research culture is that properly built it can outlive the tenure of any number of staff members. It can be a really good long-term investment.
A more expensive REF is in part in the control of universities. If it is more expensive because more staff are reflecting more deeply on the environments and culture that are propagated within research then it will be worth every penny.