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The REF: fascinating, flawed and essential

As the 2014 REF results are published, Mark Leach looks at where they sit in the wider effort to fund and support research. With so much on the table in spending review negotiations in the next few years, the next steps will prove critical in shaping the future of the REF exercise and the research base it supports.
This article is more than 9 years old

Mark is founder and Editor in Chief of Wonkhe

The results are in, and as the UK higher education wonks come blinking in the sunlight, there’s a great deal for the sector to digest.

The REF is an odd occasion – worth billions of pounds to the sector in cash, and even more in reputation which in turn yields more cash, the exercise does not in fact tell us how much money universities and departments will receive as a result of all this work. Although we can make an educated guess, the actual funding allocations will follow next year. Last night Steve Smith, vice chancellor of the University of Exeter called it ‘half time’.

In the context of a further period of austerity, there are those who suggest that the 2020 REF may not happen at all. With Research Councils facing another review, and the BIS budget facing a further squeeze, the dual support system and the money that follows it is all now firmly ‘at risk’. If we are only half way through the 2014 REF, then we are even less advanced in the grand project to support, develop and champion the UK’s outstanding research.

At the same time on a local level, careers are being built and destroyed on the altar of research. The lives of thousands are affected – from the academics that carry out the research, to those that worked on REF submissions, to the businesses that depend on research – feelings run deep and passions rage high. And rightly so.

Today’s results do not substantially alter the higher education landscape in a practical way. Although there are winners and losers in many different categories – for instance we’ve had an early look at what REF tells us about efficiency in the sector – with surprising results. And there’s plenty more of this sort of analysis to come from every quarter.

However, it is clear that there has been substantial grade inflation in the results – everyone knows it, but it’s not in many people’s interests to say so. But some of the inexplicably large jumps in proportion of 4* and 3* research speak for themselves and vice chancellors of every stripe will freely admit this is the case (anonymously, of course). On the face of it, this helps feed the desired narrative that we are “doing more, better” – but ultimately it undermines the sector’s credibility and bargaining power with an austerity Treasury that simply will not buy it.

And yet. I believe the REF is a triumph and should be supported and fought for in the negotiations over spending that will follow in the next few years. A triumph because it shows how a mature society can find reasonable ways to fund and support the creation of new knowledge and the individuals that power it – fairly and with accountability to the taxpayers who will always need convincing that this is a wise investment – particularly in times of austerity.

There will always be quibbling over metrics and processes – as is absolutely right and desirable for such a complicated exercise. The impact factor has been the great controversy over the last few years, but ironically seems to have made little impact on the results itself. The philosophical debate about it will rage on, no doubt.

The sector can and will continue to evolve the REF. HEFCE officials said yesterday that they had already started work on the tentative 2020 exercise. But the looming fight is the one to keep control over this pot of money at all (and given the scale of cuts announced in the autumn statement, perhaps even the pot itself), and so the principle of quality-related funding needs visible champions – from the outstanding small research groups that would not get a look in any other way, to the institutions that may fall out of political fashion and favor – and yes the big players that have the volume of research and are richly rewarded for it.

The process is by no means over – more change is coming and it may in fact need to be expedited if the sector is to continue this very reasonable exercise, with a sense of purpose and the funding to drive it forward. Ultimately, the story of the 2014 REF will be written in several years to come. But let’s just make sure that we come out fighting in the second half of the game.

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