We need to talk about REF and early career researchers

Sunday Blake warns that academia needs to have vital conversations about the impact of the Research Excellence Framework on disadvantaged researchers

Sunday Blake is associate editor at Wonkhe

I took a sharp pivot away from academia approximately three years ago.

This was after a promising school career, excelling at university, having my heart set on becoming a researcher, and embarking on postgraduate study after a supervisor sent me an email encouraging me to become an academic because my “insight and intrigue was what the academy needs”.

If I do say so myself, I think she was right. I was a working class, disabled woman with no parental support and, as Wonkhe readers will know, I have a lot to say about my positionality. However, I jumped ship.

It was a mixture of demotivation and exhaustion. I did not feel like I belonged, and I did not feel that my own values were reflected in the standards I was held against, nor what I personally saw of research importance heralded as “worthy”. Many of my friends and peers, however, remained and attempted to carve out careers in the sector. Watching the levels of stress the REF has put them under in the last few weeks has only served to compound my decision to go.

We need a conversation

We need a conversation about how the REF – and the myths surrounding it – impacts newer, often younger, early career researchers. In particular, we need to have a conversation about how marginalised people – possibly the beneficiaries of widening participation schemes – who are underrepresented in academia but who have gone on to qualify and work within it fare under an institutional framework set up by those who are overrepresented in academia, and by those who have been in charge of these institutions for quite some time.

It is a point I have made time and time again: rankings and league tables are reflective of the values of those who design them. In the case of the REF, this means which research qualifies as “world class,” and which research falls outside of this. Whether or not you agree with the delineation is irrelevant, if you spend more than 20 percent of your work time on research, you are held against metrics of others’ design. The stress associated with this does not just stem from being judged against metrics you may not agree with, the stress will come from losing your funding, or worse, your job.

Missing voices

As predicted, twitter has been awash with criticism in the lead up to today’s REF results. But there are some voices missing. In anticipation of these results, I spoke to a few of my former peers, who are now early career researchers (ERCs). It was telling that nobody wanted to voice their concerns in public, or put their name to the quotes they gave me. The term “career suicide” was a phrase I heard more than once. Regardless of whether you agree with the legitimacy of these concerns, they are real and they have material impact. If we are serious about diversifying research – as a recent UKRI strategy claimed – then we must address what causes diverse researchers undue stress, ostracisation, and to possibly (like me) choose to leave academia completely.

Speaking to one ECR, she told me,

The Research Excellence Framework doesn’t quantify success. It doesn’t quantify excellence. It quantifies how well you play the game. It provides a measure of where you fit in the hierarchy. It should be called the Academic Hierarchy Framework. And it shouldn’t exist.

The hierarchies that she speaks of are, arguable, artificial. Big-name grant-winners with low teaching loads with of course lead to higher scores, fellowship-holders who’ve had time to network will get those sort-after invitations, even those with a Twitter blue-tick with a large sector presence have a head start. These are the conditions which lead to the research we call “excellence.” And when you can play the game according to these rules, you get more esteem, more time to research, and more success. The cycle repeats. When you are structurally prevented from playing such a game, these are perpetually out of reach.

Another ECR with two children, said

A measure of research excellence” is just how well you fit in. We know that social barriers exclude anyone who isn’t white, male and wealthy – there’s a gender gap, a race gap, a whole host of underrepresented groups including queer people, those with caring and experiences of disability, and people form working class backgrounds. It won’t come as a surprise that these groups also receive lower REF scores. Are they worse researchers? Are they less excellent? No. Yet that’s what the REF will tell you.

The benefit of breadth

This very week I addressed Wonkhe’s Access All Areas conference delegates, reminding them that widening participation in higher education is not just about altruism, but widening participation actively benefits institutions and wider society due to the diversity of experience and perspective it enables. The consequences of the REF are departmental decisions about which research is most “worth” pursuing, in the name of self preservation. Often this does not align with the insights of marginalised researchers. As another ERC from a working class background told me,

The REF, and the hold it has over my department, means that rather than pursuing an interesting research question that has been invited to be a chapter in a book, I better prioritise that complicated methodological paper that could hit a high-ranking journal. Instead of submitting my research to an outlet almost designed for it, I have to search for a higher impact factor.

Impact factor does not contribute to a REF score, but this quote illustrates both the level of harmful mythology that surrounds the framework, as well as why we need to create open spaces where ERCs can voice their concerns (speaking anonymously to an associate editor is scarcely sufficient), and have them reassured or addressed. And anyway, this doesn’t detract from the main point here: that it is a shameful tragedy that ERCs routinely feel they must sacrifice their academic interests, particularly when those motivated and propelled them through an education system stacked against them.

If this is the reality that new, brilliant, minds in the sector feel forced to work within then we are failing to fulling utilise their talent or allow them – and their research – to reach its potential. It is demoralising and exhausting. And it means that we fail to fix the leaky pipeline that sees brilliant, but disadvantaged, students and postgraduate researchers fail to take their learning and training on into research.

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