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The 2018 REF-erendum: building the case for remain

Crossing the academic rigour of the Brexit campaign with the raw constitutional excitement of the REF, Andrew McRae imagines a world where our two favourite topics of discussion become one.
This article is more than 5 years old

Andrew McRae is Dean of Postgraduate Research at the University of Exeter and was formerly Head of the English Department.

Imagine that academics across the United Kingdom were granted a referendum on membership of the Research Excellence Framework (REF). How would they vote?

This is a facetious question, since there’s never been anything democratic about the way the government distributes research funds. But if the mood of academics swings against the REF, there will always be politicians and bureaucrats prepared to suggest enticingly simpler systems. So a groundswell of opposition, whipped into life by a distaste for all forms of performance monitoring, should give cause for concern among REF-remainers.

A month ago, I would have predicted a strong vote for remain, but, after recent experiences with the “REF leave” movement on social media, I’m not so sure. It’s therefore worth considering what could be done to secure the vote either way.

Project fear

Any good referendum campaign – I think I’ve got this right – needs fear. If there was no REF, that would surely mean the end of Quality-Related funding, currently one part of the UK’s dual-support structure for the distribution of public research funds. That would mean either a loss to the sector of more than £2 billion per year, a transfer of that £2 billion into grants, or a combination of these options. By the way, anyone hoping that the government might just hand over QR funding regardless is misreading the definitions of ‘quality’ and ‘related’.

Regardless, a REF-less world would mean less autonomy for universities in decisions over research development, at a time when the government is already being more intrusive, most notably through the Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund. It would also be disastrous for humanities and social sciences disciplines, which do disproportionately well out of QR and disproportionately poorly out of grants. Toss in the possibility of variable fees by discipline, and humanities and social sciences (HASS) departments could face a generation in the freezer. Armageddon my point across?

But maybe we need a more positive message as well. It’s striking just how many academics don’t see any benefits from QR. Some associate it merely with the few hundred pounds of research allowance that their departments hand them. Others resent central decisions to devote QR to grand projects that seem remote and unimportant.

There are lessons to be learned here for VCs and PVCs. Granted, from their perspective all income falls into one big pot. Researchers, however, want to feel the benefit of their labours. And it shouldn’t be difficult: for a start, how about universities transparently cost their research leave policies (for those that have them), and connect the dots with QR?

And there may also be some lessons for UK Research and Innovation (UKRI). Research Assessment Exercises (RAEs) and the REF of the past have generated powerful, inspirational narratives of research success, for the benefit of politicians and policy-makers. Might some of this effort be redirected towards researchers themselves, who more commonly experience the REF as an oppressive process than a source of inspiration? Perhaps their good will has been taken for granted.


On the evidence of recent social media exchanges, some of the most vocal supporters of REF are immigrants. If the UK’s REF-shaped relative clarity of expectations has offered an international researcher a career-lifeline, to move from a country in which appointments and promotions are more sluggish and opaque, this can engender a warm glow of affection.

By comparison, academics who have known nothing but RAE and REF are less likely to appreciate what it has done for them – creating jobs, expediting promotions, and so forth – and more likely to view those distant pre-REF days with a sense of wonder. Back then, people spent longer on their big ideas, didn’t they? Britain produced big, serious books, and Nobel Prize winners. Academics were left alone to just get on with it.

One way of confronting this nostalgia is through data. There is evidence that British research in general was lagging throughout the 1980s. The surge that has brought the UK to its current position can be traced back to the effects of early RAEs beginning to bite within universities. The UK now ranks first amongst its comparator countries by field-weighted citation impact, and this can be explained in part by its broad research base.

But data alone won’t convince people to love the REF. Leavers have the more compelling stories: of poor management in the name of REF preparation; of early career researchers (ECRs) being suspended in casualisation as they try to build sets of publications to sell to an employer that will immediately push them to repeat the performance for the next cycle.

So there’s work to be done for the remain campaign. Pointing to Professor Ego who has just secured a big pre-REF pay-rise won’t necessarily seize the imagination of a lecturer losing money on the picket-line. UKRI might do well to take some initiative, aiming to make the REF less forbidding. A training programme for line-managers might help, or some research into the effects of REF on appointment decisions. REF might also align itself more explicitly with ethical frameworks such as Athena SWAN, the Vitae Concordat, and the forthcoming KEF concordatThe ‘real-time review’, announced this week, looks like it might be a step in the right direction.

REF managers may feel burned by the reception of their well-meant proposals on portability, intended to iron out any distorting effects of the system on the job market. But now that the rules for REF 2021 are settled, there is space for further efforts to inform academic culture. Maybe love is unrealistic; trust, actually, would probably suffice.

Close your eyes and it might all go away

There are more important debates to be having than the one about REF. We should be focusing on the overall quantity of public research funding. Then we might consider the balance between grants and QR. And then again there’s the desperate uncertainty over European Union collaboration. Fussing about the mechanism for distributing QR feels insular, and risks giving the impression that academics are not much bothered with accountability.

But perhaps the REF-erendum is a process we need to embrace all the same. The remain camp can win, yet they may need to engage more openly with their critics’ concerns. These won’t just disappear; and if the remainers lose, nobody can expect a second vote on the withdrawal terms.

2 responses to “The 2018 REF-erendum: building the case for remain

  1. On the other hand, the REF promotes short term research, hype and fraud. It’ must take some part of the responsibility for the crisis in reproducibility that threatens the whole scientific enterprise.

  2. The one point of similarity with the EU decision is the small size of the funds involved. REF accounts for about 4% of the higher education sector’s turnover and 0.2% of government spending. EU contributions are around 0.6% of UK GDP. So in both cases a lot of fuss and a heap of bureucracy over not a great deal, notwithstanding the £2bn headline figure cited in this post.

    Whether or not you are pro/anti the EU or the REF has very little to do with funding. Both appear to be signifiers. REF success signals a university is serious about research. EU(Remain) signifies a basic approval of the UK’s cultural direction of travel 1973-2015.

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