REF delayed until 2029

REF 2028 has become REF 2029 as the sector gets an additional year to prepare for the new framework

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

The four UK funding bodies have announced that the Research Excellence Framework will be delayed until 2029.

In November, Executive Chair of Research England, Jessica Corner, wrote that she had heard concerns from the sector on the size of the proposed changes with a promise to return with a response on the use of data, impact case study requirements, and minimum and maximum submission requirements.

The funding bodies have now arrived at the decision that they will delay REF by a year in order to:

  • Give providers the time to work through the complexities of using HESA data to determine REF volume measures. As the volume measure will be determined using HESA data on the number of staff with significant responsibility for research, the reliability and operability data is crucial to breaking the link between individuals and unit submissions.
  • Fully break the link between individual staff and institutional submissions. Including concerns that without a minimum and maximum submission there could be an overrepresentation of a small number of researchers to the detriment of wider equality aims.
  • Give more time for providers to rework institutional codes of practice in order to support the policy changes in REF.

Although moving REF back a year will grab the headlines there is significant news elsewhere.

Outputs solely authored by PhD students will not be eligible for REF after all. This initial proposal had received pushback across the sector. Outputs produced by staff on teaching-only contracts will also not be eligible for submission.

The structure of Units of Assessment will remain unchanged. There will undoubtedly be some concerns that in some places they are big and in some places they don’t precisely map on to research disciplines. However, the big advantage of keeping UOAs the same is that it will allow for some comparability between units over time; not withstanding the methodological changes.

Speaking of UOAs, institutions may submit any output where there is a “demonstrable and substantive link to the submitting institution within the REF period.” While demonstrating this link may add complexity, the funding bodies’ argument is that it is important not to disincentivise the mobility of staff by limiting an output to a single institution.

In impact, it has been confirmed that the need to have 2* minimum quality research linked to an impact case study will be removed and the minimum number of impact case studies that an institution can submit per disciplinary submission will be reduced to one. This may lead to a more diverse range of submissions if not a larger volume.

Pushing REF back to 2029 gives the whole sector time to adjust to a significant set of policy changes.

These announcements do not address the People, Culture and Environment (PCE) element which is being dealt with in a separate consultation. Announcements on PCE will be made in January 2024 with confirmation that as work advances the 25 per cent weighting will be reviewed. Although it is not mentioned here pushing the exercise back a year to adjust data, write codes of practice and iron out any unintended consequences, also gives additional time to pilot, trial, or otherwise develop the data sets to strengthen the PCE element of REF.

REF is a complex, technical and time consuming exercise which is only made possible if it commands the confidence of the sector. If a delay provides the opportunity to work out how parts of the new REF will work in practice and in doing so delivers the objective of severing the link between individuals and institutional submissions then many will see a delay as worthwhile.

If these issues cannot be resolved there will be an additional year to reckon with how to advance, or whether to advance, with a version of REF with laudable aims but imperfect measurements.

5 responses to “REF delayed until 2029

  1. Reasonable as I suspect a few institutions will require more time to develop, implement and evaluate polices and actions to improve the research culture element, and associated meaningful and responsible metrics to demonstrate their ‘excellence’.

  2. Wholly predictable but unnecessary and avoidable. It is unclear what major issues with REF2021 the funding bodies are seeking to resolve. Constant change (followed by lengthy consultation) is the biggest issue we face and data is never comparable from one exercise to the next. Delay is actually due to ill conceived notions that the data sources exist already in HESA etc. One thing is sure – REF2028 will be more about narrative than research quality!

  3. A big personal gain – this delay pretty much guarantees the REF after this one will fall just after, and not just before, my scheduled retirement! One last time through this miserable process.

  4. The narrative is important. Any means dont justify the ends. I hope the panel really takes a closer look at this element in particular. “demonstrable and substantive link to the submitting institution within the REF period.”

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