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Stern review deserves a co-operative response

Jamie Arrowsmith

Jamie Arrowsmith

Assistant Director, Policy
Universities UK International

Lord Stern has provided us all with more summer holiday reading, with his much anticipated review of the Research Excellence Framework, published by BEIS.

For those readers not overly familiar with the heady world of research funding, and the plethora of acronyms it has spawned, the Research Excellence Framework  (REF) is a periodic assessment of research in universities.

Undertaken every five years or so, it requires universities to submit evidence and examples of their research, the ‘real world’ impact this research has had (there are 7,000 case studies available online) and the environment in which the research is produced.

These submissions are evaluated by panels of experts, who then rate the overall quality of the submissions. The outcomes of this exercise (most recently conducted in 2014) are then used to allocate nearly £2 billion each year in ‘quality-related’ (or QR) funding for research to universities across the UK.

So getting the process right really matters.

However, there have long been arguments about the cost and burden of the REF and its relative benefits. There have also been concerns about the impact that the process has on individual academic careers and academic culture more generally. The stakes are high, and many have argued that this places an unfair burden on individuals and institutions alike.

This is the context in which Lord Stern’s review was launched in December 2015. His group was tasked with sketching out a new approach to the REF, ‘focusing on a simpler, lighter-touch method of research assessment, that more effectively uses data and metrics while retaining the benefits of peer review’.

Coming so soon after Professor James Wilsdon’s comprehensive report on the role of metrics in research assessment, there were concerns that this was an attempt to reach a different conclusion and push the sector towards a purely data driven exercise.

However, these fears were misplaced.

Lord Stern has delivered a considered reflection on the strengths and weaknesses of the REF.

His review group has tried to balance the many different interests at play, proposing an evolution of the existing approach (albeit with some significant highlights) rather than major reconstructive surgery. The important role played by the REF and QR funding in supporting the excellence of UK research is recognised alongside the costs of the process – to people as well as university finances.

The approach the review sets out is broadly in line with what Universities UK called for in our response to the call for evidence in April, with one significant exception.

On balance, we concluded that universities should retain the ability to select staff to include in the exercise, whereas Lord Stern proposes that all research staff should be returned. This, he argues, should help mitigate some of the less desirable consequences of the exercise while retaining its valuable features.

This will no doubt create challenges – not least the potential to hugely increase the number of staff and therefore outputs being evaluated, which risks increasing the burden on the evaluation panels if not managed sensitively – and work will need to be done to fully understand the impact of this proposal.

Yet even here, in this more contentious area, the language is nuanced and the review leaves many questions unanswered, which is no bad thing. There is significant scope for the community to work with government and funders to help shape the implementation of Lord Stern’s vision, which should be welcomed.

The university sector is facing a challenging time, and it is important that our institutions are given clarity and certainty wherever possible. Hopefully, through the engagement of the whole sector, the framework set out by Lord Stern can help provide this.

 

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