REF and teaching

There’s a recent article in the Guardian about the influence of the Research Excellence Framework (REF2014) on university teaching. The basic issue is that money will only be allocated on the basis of papers that score highly (3* and 4*) and that league table rankings will also be determined by these high-ranking papers. Therefore, there is an incentive for universities to only submit researchers who have enough (essentially 4) papers that will be judged to be 3* or 4*. The concern is therefore that those who do not qualify will be encouraged (forced) to focus primarily on teaching or (as in the case of Queen Mary, University of London) face redundancy.

Many universities are making “clear pledges that not being entered to the REF in November will not damage an academic’s career“. There are others, however, where this is clearly already having an impact (Queen Mary, University of London, Kings College and Strathclyde are three that I’ve heard about). I personally think that it is potentially a real problem. There is a big difference between how research and teaching are evaluated at universities, with an individual’s contribution to the research ranking being much more obvious than an individual’s contribution to any teaching ranking. One concern is that it will create a hierarchy within universities with some able to focus more on research and others “encouraged” to focus primarily on teaching and administration. I don’t have an issue with different people contributing to an academic department in different ways. I just would rather it were dynamic and evolved in some “natural” way, rather than being forced upon us by an external assessment exercise.

University leaders are trying, in general, to make it clear that research and teaching are both valued parts of an academic’s career. The problem is that they don’t get to decide if the staff regard them as being of similar value. It certainly seems that even students are concerned about the impact that REF might have on the motivation of staff who might be judged to be “unworthy” and hence encouraged into having a larger role in teaching. I certainly think that these concerns are justified, even if there isn’t any evidence that REF is having, in general, this kind of impact.

There do seem to be two common views expressed by those who are more supportive of REF than maybe I am. One is that it is not unreasonable to expect academics to publish 4 good papers every 7 years. In general I agree with this, although there may be some exceptions. However, there is a difference between publishing 4 good papers and publishing 4 papers that will be judged (by a panel – many of whom may not be particular expert in your field) to be good. Maybe about one-quarter of my papers have done quite well (in terms of citations) but I don’t really have a good idea why they did well and why others didn’t. I can’t really look back and claim that I can now tell why some papers would be judged to be good, while others would not. I’m typically quite pleased with most of the papers I publish. Whether or not they do well (in metric terms) all seems a little random to me.

The other claim that is often made is that REF has forced universities to take hiring more seriously and that hiring is now based on excellence. Firstly, this is presumably only “perceived excellence” in research. One of the perennial criticisms of university hiring has been that teaching ability hasn’t been taken seriously enough. I really can’t see that REF has helped here. My feeling is that it may have made the situation worse. The other issue I have with this claim is that it suggests that the typical academic today is somehow better (because of REF) than they were 20 or 30 years ago. Really? I thought universities in the UK have been world-class for decades. I’m sure many academics who were active in the 60s, 70s, 80s and 90s might be slightly insulted by this suggestion. I suspect there were issues with hiring practices in those days, but that was probably more to do with societal issues that have been remedied via equalities legislation, than via REF.

It strikes me that there has been quite a lot of recent coverage about the negative aspects of REF, so maybe some of it will sink in. Not that hopeful though. Maybe I should be considering holding back some of my current work so as to publish papers that will qualify for REF2021.

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