REF 2014

So the REF 2014 submission date is almost upon us, and doubtless everyone will breathe a sigh of relief (at least for a while) once the VC presses the submit button. From the perspective of a senior manager, the process has felt like a roller-coaster. From the perspective of many members of academic staff I suspect it has felt a lot worse.

At one level, REF is not about people. It is about submitting the best return we can for the University across all disciplines – but how do we define ‘best’? At one extreme, we could have played the volume game, whereby we include as many people as possible to maximise income. At the other extreme, we could have played the quality game, where we are very selective regarding which outputs we return. We all know how we have in fact played the exercise, which for obvious reasons I won’t reiterate in an open blog, at least not before the final submission date. Irrespective of how it is played, the outcome will, inter alia, be  a grade point average for each UoA and for the organisation as a whole. Importantly, the scores for individuals will never be made public, so one will never know who is a ‘4*’ or a ‘3*’ researcher for sure – we can only surmise based on our own internal assessment, which hopefully will not be so different from the assessment of the panels.

At another level, it is of course all about people. Those who were judged not to have outputs of the requisite quality for inclusion in REF will doubtless feel concerned and angry. Unfortunately, however one plays the game, there will be a line above which people will be included, and a line below which they will not, and the line must be drawn somewhere. Unless the rules are changed so that everyone on a research contract must be included (which I would personally support for subsequent exercises), there will be a cohort of disillusioned staff. To these staff I would say please have faith – the ‘bar to entry’ is now very high, and some very good research will not be included. In concert with the ‘raising the bar’ initiative,  we will need to work with colleagues who didn’t quite make the submission, in order to ensure that they can be returned by the next REF.

As I’ve stated in a previous blog, the REF is perhaps the most rigorous means to assess the quality of research across the sector. However, there is still a significant element of game playing – we hear of one University that has recruited a cohort of staff on 20% contracts  – who are they kidding! The stakes are however very high, because the financial reward and the kudos that comes with a good league table position lives with us until the next REF. So it’s very important that we do our best to get it right and balance quantity versus quality using our best judgement on what every other organisation will be doing.

Have we got it right? Only time will tell – all I can tell you at this stage is that we have given it our best shot.

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About stevehomans

Professor Steve Homans is a structural biologist with an international reputation in the study of biomolecular interactions. He obtained his first degree and DPhil in Biochemistry at Oxford University, and secured his first academic position as Lecturer at the University of Dundee. In 1998 he received the Zeneca award from the Biochemical Society and was elected Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh. Prior to his current appointment he was Dean of the Faculty of Biological Sciences at the University of Leeds. Professor Homans brings extensive expertise of academic leadership and management, with a particular emphasis on organisational change.
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