Raising the Bar

We held a Faculty Executive Board away-day last week to discuss the University ‘Raising the Bar’ agenda. Everyone will hopefully be aware of this initiative from the Vice-Chancellor’s presentation at a series of Town Hall meetings over recent months. Practically, it concerns how we might raise our game, particularly in research. Naturally this is  rather important following the results of the last REF as a checkpoint, and as we move towards the next exercise. Not that this outcome was particularly troublesome – as an organisation we did after all move up one position in the REF League Table, while a number of prominent peers headed downwards.  However, on a more critical note we have been in roughly this position for the last two RAEs. Clearly if we wish to improve further (and I hope no-one doubts the need to do that), then we need to do something different – enter the Raising the Bar agenda.

There exists a Raising the Bar Steering Group that is chaired by the FMS PVC (Professor Chris Day), and the SAgE and HaSS PVCs are also members. We meet weekly, and our remit initially is to report back to University Executive Board regarding the steps we can take to improve our position for the next REF. In this regard we thought it would be useful for SAgE FEB to hold an away-day so that we can crystallise thoughts to be fed into the Steering Group. Before I explain what we came up with I’d like to reflect for a moment on what Raising the Bar implies. It’s not meant to suggest that everyone is not working hard enough or that the University does not value everyone’s contribution. It’s true that there were undoubtedly some less positive outcomes from the REF, but we had some spectacular successes as well, and we can be proud of that. Rather, Raising the Bar reflects the need to raise ambition. For example, we need to think about publishing in the very best journals, even if this means reducing the total number of outputs (which it undoubtedly will, since publishing in the best journals takes a lot of time).

So what did FEB conclude. Well it’s not rocket science, but here are the three areas on which we feel we need to focus:

  • Recruitment and retention: an organisation is only as good as the people that work in it, so it follows that we need to pull out all the stops to attract and retain the very best people in our respective fields. Wide advertising helps, but the very best people are likely to be well looked after in their present institution, and are unlikely to be browsing the classifieds. So we all need to be potential recruiters – speak to individuals, see if you can ‘talent spot’ at conferences.
  • From the above narrative it’s not surprising that we feel there needs to be a renewed focus on quality of outputs. However, we agreed it’s actually quite hard to define what a ‘4*’ paper actually is. Metrics can help, but only tell part of the story and if used blindly can be hopelessly misleading. You will recall that in the run-up to REF we did not plan to submit any 2* outputs, except under special circumstances. Yet we ended up with 40% 2* in one of our submissions. Each potential UoA for the next REF will therefore be looking closely at what constitutes 4*. It follows that we need to be publishing work of that quality with regularity. If every member of staff returns to REF with one 4* paper, we’d be well on the way to achieving our objective.
  • Finally, we see the need to untangle the concept of ‘parity of esteem for research and teaching’. At a basic level this statement is unhelpful, since it implies that there are two different work-streams. As we grow the quality of our research this needs to be seamlessly integrated into teaching. To put it another way, the majority of our academic staff need to be engaged in both activities.

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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