Cameron Neylon is Professor of Research Communications at the Centre for Culture and Technology at Curtin University

The stories we tell about ourselves matter, both for ourselves and for others.

The stories we tell together about what we do and why it has value to us and for others create the spaces in which we do that work. Universities are held together by the stories we, and others, tell in common about what we do.

But universities are also built around the collision of different stories and narratives, differing disciplines, experiences and goals.

The UK higher education sector is diverse, not to our ongoing shame in terms of the faces and life experiences that make it up, but in the variety of organizations, large and small, focused and general, with differing missions, strengths and weaknesses. You might therefore expect a diversity of stories to be told about success. The release of the REF 2021 results would therefore be an opportunity to emphasise the different aspects that make different institutions great.

You would be disappointed.

Narrative drought

I adopted the (obviously highly scientific and objective) approach of monitoring the #REF2021 hashtag on twitter through May 12th. It was obvious that the vast majority of communications from universities and departments was based on just three templates, telling three very narrow stories.

The first template is very familiar from previous REFs and is very well captured by Dan Davies’ tweet. Whenever a university or a department could find a column in the spreadsheet that would put them top – that is the story. Oxford, Imperial and Cambridge could all claim “the” top spot by selecting the data to tell that story. Of course, so could many others.

This obsession with rankings and being top of them is interesting because the REF results are intentionally presented to make it less easy to create aggregate rankings. Of course third party providers with a financial interest in the narrative that rankings are what matter will provide them. In fact the “THE Ranking” was almost more popular than working with the real data, showing universities are more interested in stories that make them out to be the best than they are in being in control of that story.

Where no amount of torturing a spreadsheet could deliver a sufficiently impressive ranking position there was a second template on offer. This one runs “x per cent of our research [in Z] is world-leading”. This came in a few variants. Some were a little more precise with their wording, emphasising that this applied to the “submitted research”, but others were…less careful simply saying that “X per cent of our work is world-leading”. I’m no advertising regulator but a lot of what went out on social media seemed on the verge of disingenuous.

A lot of what we do is great, but…

Social media is obviously not a great place for nuance, but this is really a message that sounds great but is largely meaningless. “A lot of what we do is great!” is a story worth telling, but more often than not these statements seemed disconnected from any details of the actual work itself. As with “we are top” it seems like it is not the work itself that is being valued, but the marks being awarded.

There were glimmers of light. In some cases, there were links from the top-level claims to stories about the research itself. Particularly where there was a focus on performance in the impact case studies there was not infrequently some effort to link these to institutional mission. It is easy to be cynical but these at least show an engagement with the actual research. They told a story of how public funding has created benefits by talking about actual benefits. Not just celebrating some abstract number.

The final story is one of improvement. This one was adopted more at the sector level. For many organisations, a jump in a ranking (again, pick your column carefully!) was a thing to celebrate. But more importantly the claim of an overall improvement in UK research performance was something that many latched onto. Of course, the data can’t support this claim. The previous exercises were not comparable. Different panels, comparing different outputs against a different world, with somewhat different rules.

After competition

But the bigger issue for me is the lack of internal consistency of these three narratives together and the lack of confidence. One one side the central claim is that we are world leading (and always have been). On the other side, we’re improving (again, as we did last time). World-leading is not world-leading enough! We must be world-leadinger…or something.

This kind of narrative makes sense in (some) sports. Even if all the runners are terrible, someone will still win each race. But at the same time world records can continue to fall, an objective increase in performance. The sports narrative leaks into the sector all over from “league tables” to the THES unironically calling their post-REF webinar a “post-match analysis”. But, as many others have observed, research is not a zero-sum game and there is no means of imposing objective standards.

The sector is much more than a race. And to be fair as the immediate rush to grab a headline has receded more complex and reflective stories have emerged. To the credit of communications departments across the sector, there has been an effort to recognise the labour of staff, including the wider professional staff body, perhaps offering the beginning of a story that can be told together. I have many, perhaps even more than most, complaints about the REF, but there has been a substantial effort, across the REF teams at Research England and across the sector to support, and even demand, the telling of more stories of collaboration, of excitement, value creation and collective benefit.

Represented in the story

But to return to the opening, if the first story we tell is always one of how we won and others lost, and only later does more nuance appear then this is not just a good story for others, but the story we are telling ourselves, about what matters most about our work. That first release, and the first paragraph in its inverted pyramid are not just the only thing others listen to, but what we collectively notice and internalise. Again, to return to the beginning, the HE sector is diverse, but its staff demographics are not. A big contributor to that is the toxic atmosphere of competition that drives out many, but systematically those that are underrepresented.

Research in all its variety and approaches, and our institutions in all theirs are fundamentally about telling the complex and often difficult stories of how the universe and its parts work. We should be better at telling coherent, compelling and (heaven forfend) evidence supported, but above all diverse stories about what we are doing.

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