It is a rare moment when critics of exercises such as the Research Excellence Framework feel vindicated by a government-commissioned review. Nicholas Stern’s review of the REF, though broadly in favour of it, includes some important criticisms. It acknowledges that the REF has functioned to the disadvantage of women, Black and Minority Ethnic academics, and academics with disabilities; that it devalues interdisciplinary research; and that its narrow conception of ‘impact’ has been geared towards policy changes and the commercialisation of academic work.
Stern’s language presents a distinct contrast to the government’s recent White Paper, Success as a Knowledge Economy: Teaching Excellence, Social Mobility and Student Choice. There, the figure of the lecturer disappears; the idea of the university is replaced by ‘higher education providers’; and diversity and social mobility are given as reasons, without any basis whatsoever, for creating a fully fledged private market of higher education institutions. According to the Stern Review, meanwhile, ‘the HEFCE analysis of staff selection for the REF’ showed
a marked difference between the rate of selection for men and women. 67 per cent of men were selected, compared with 51 per cent of women. Black, Asian UK and non-EU nationals had lower selection rates, and the selection rate for staff with declared disabilities was lower than for those without.
As David Price observed in the THES last year, selection processes have ‘conspicuous potential for discrimination’ harming both individual researchers and research culture as a whole.
Stern criticises both the ‘gaming’ of the REF by institutions which appoint staff on costly fractional contracts, contributing little if anything to a department’s institutional research culture, and the ‘rent seeking behaviour’ of high-flyers who renegotiate their contracts just before the census date.
An even bigger problem that the Stern Review identifies is the way the REF encourages researchers to focus on the short term and avoid risk. Groundbreaking and discipline-bending research takes time. Academics interested in doing more than ‘shifting the deck chairs around’ (as an academic manager once described research to me) will welcome Stern’s emphasis on ‘finding ways to ensure that the REF can encourage researchers to explore big or fundamental problems in ways that may not deliver a steady stream of papers or a quick monograph’.
‘The disciplinary “silos” embedded in the Unit of Assessment panel’ have meant that interdisciplinary research is often ‘regarded less favourably than mono-disciplinary research’, Stern says. The fusing of ‘research quality’ with individual performance also threatens collaborative research. Some of the most important and discipline-shifting texts in the social sciences have been produced collaboratively. The Birmingham Cultural Studies scene of the 1970s and 1980s, for instance, placed collaboration at the nexus of intellectual-political projects, paid less heed to individual authorship and pushed disciplinary boundaries into new terrain.
Stern recommends that all ‘research active staff’ (though he doesn’t say who this would include or exclude) should be submitted to the REF, with an average of two pieces of work each, though some might have more than that and some might have none at all. The recommendation has been criticised for potentially introducing another damaging selection process (rather than who is submitted, the choice would be as to whose work goes forward). But it would be better to see it as an opportunity to emphasise the need to avoid the demoralisation and stress on individual academics that comes from such selection processes, which the Stern Review notes explicitly.
The recommendation that all staff be submitted to the REF could put an end to the often punitive internal review processes, in which a few ‘experts’ – who are often anonymous, their findings communicated through a line manager or REF co-ordinator – stand in judgment over their peers, deciding who is ‘in’ and who is ‘out’. The awarding of one, two, three or four stars to scholarship (which may fall far out of their own areas of research and interest, or what they consider valuable areas of inquiry), adds a level of infantilisation and indignity to the process. Stern recognises that peer review is not a ‘perfect measure’, an understatement given the broad range of expertise and time required to make a proper assessment, and the same goes for mock REF exercises. Ironically enough, these internal reviews or ‘mock REFs’ have developed in many departments and institutions at a time when open criticism and robust disagreement over ideas and research methods seem almost impossible to voice, for fear of offending someone, even in self-proclaimed ‘progressive’ spaces.
I wonder, when Stern acknowledges the ‘demoralising’ and ‘stressful’ effect of the REF selection process on academics, if he considered the extent to which this is compounded for Black, Asian and other minority ethnic academics, against whom the REF discriminates. The REF is often tied to probation and promotion, despite explicit assurances to the contrary, exacerbating what the THES has called the ‘horrifying figures on BME promotion’.
A more critical analysis of the Stern Review is certainly warranted – it praises the success and importance of the REF; it recommends that it be tightly aligned with the Teaching Excellence Framework, which has also come under increasing critical scrutiny; and concludes that higher education is better off with the REF than without – but the recommendations I’ve discussed here provide a solid basis for campaigning against some of the most pernicious effects of the REF.