New developments in REF people, culture and environment measures

Team REF has a new timetable

James Coe is Associate Editor for research and innovation at Wonkhe, and a partner at Counterculture

As predicted previously in Wonkhe one of the opportunities of pushing the REF back is granting time not only to work out what metrics to use but to pilot various approaches.

Technopolis, evaluators of previous REF exercises, and CRAC-Vitae (a non-profit programme, part of the Careers Research & Advisory Centre) have been commissioned to work with the research community to develop “a shortlist of indicators to be used to evidence and support institutions’ PCE [People, Culture and Environment] submissions as part of a structured questionnaire for REF submissions.”

The programme is launching this month, engagement and development will continue throughout this year, with proposed PCE indicators to be published in July 2025 following various moments of consultation.

But we’ve also got a plan for a pilot exercise, which institutions can volunteer to take part in, with pilot panels assessing draft submissions (this will “draw on the indicators developed in the PCE indicators project and the two projects will collaborate on several points”).

The REF team intends to pick up to 30 institutions to submit to the pilot ensuring a spread of geography, research intensity, and breadth of mission, amongst other considerations.

Simultaneously, a letter to vice chancellors has been circulated to set out the new timetable with a note that 150 inputs were received on the consultation on the new PCE indicators:

Overall, the community has expressed clear support for the principle of an increased emphasis on PCE in the next REF, while outlining concern around the need for careful consideration of the reporting burden on the sector and the potential dangers of metricising culture or prescribing what good looks like.

It is encouraging that there is principle on the increased emphasis on PCE – but the real debate has always been about weighting, indicators and unintended consequences.

As Rebecca Fairbairn, Director of REF at Research England, has set out in a blog it is important that a measure of research quality includes measures of its impacts on society and the environment in which it is produced – but culture is extremely hard to measure.

Rebecca’s key argument is that measuring culture and environment is also about the sustainability of the sector. Put frankly, the research sector will not continue to produce outstanding outputs if people cannot afford to work in it, do not like the environment in which research is produced, or otherwise feel their enjoyment of life is compromised through carrying out research.

Rebecca’s final paragraph is a robust defence of the process to date and another principle everyone can get behind:

I know it will be a challenge to keep everybody happy. We cannot create a REF 2029 that is perfect for everyone. I will sleep well at night if it is fair to all.

It is the difference of opinion on what is fair as an exercise, what is fair to society and employees, and what is the fair administrative burden for universities, where the debate over the next two years will be held.

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